ANNAPOLIS – Some lawmakers are not giving up on an expensive school reform plan presented to the General Assembly Thursday, even though the governor has said the state can’t afford it this year.
Schools need another $130 million in next year’s budget, and $1.1 billion over the next five years, according to a two-year study by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, commonly called the Thornton Commission.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening issued his budget Tuesday with no money for the commission’s recommendations.
The Legislature will have to find the money or lower its expectations, said Alvin Thornton, commission chairman.
“Maryland should continue to lead. It should not fall back,” Thornton told the joint hearing of four committees in a packed room.
The committee recommended the state take on a greater share of school funding and that it dole out that money more equitably, bringing poor districts such as Prince George’s County and Baltimore in line with more affluent ones such as Montgomery County.
The plan also consolidates dozens of state aid programs into a system of block grants to districts, allowing them flexibility in spending state money. It provides money for statewide full-day kindergarten and for students with special needs. And it requires districts to submit five-year plans and account for their progress.
The plan has earned praise from legislators, school officials and even the governor, but its future remains uncertain.
Glendening’s $2.2 billion budget included a $161 million increase for existing education programs, but he said this is not the year for anything new. The governor’s budget is designed to close a more than $500 million deficit projected for the end of this fiscal year.
“We’re facing some tough decisions,” he said at a Thursday morning meeting. “There’s just not money available for that.”
Delegate Paul H. Carlson, D-Montgomery, said life is much different than just last year when the state boasted a $1 billion surplus.
“Part of me feels like the world changed,” he said at the hearing. “I wonder as I look at these recommendations if now is not the right time to move forward.”
“Please move forward,” Thornton responded. “We’ve given you the data. I know your task is hard.”
After the hearing, Thornton turned adamant. “I know my money is going to be there in the supplemental budget,” he said. “The governor is not going to miss this historical opportunity.”
Sen. Howard “Pete” Rawlings, D-Baltimore, Appropriations chairman, supports the plan but said paying for it will be almost impossible.
“Do you want us to cut Medicare?” he said after the hearing. “Cut the corrections system? Drug treatment? Give me some direction.”
Several legislators said they will continue to push for the plan, hoping to find a “down payment” in the next budget so reforms can begin right away. At the same time, they will seek an ongoing revenue source.
Adjusting the budget is a matter of priorities, Thornton said. He suggested spreading the program over seven instead of five years, targeting lottery money and delaying the income tax reduction, as the governor does in his budget. The important thing, he said, is to commit to the philosophy of the plan and start now.
“Every child in Maryland should have an equal amount spent on them,” he said.
“Politically, we don’t have a choice but to fund this.”
If the commission’s recommendations are not funded, Thornton said, parents will have ammunition to sue the state.
“I’d be irresponsible as a citizen not to support litigation to move the political process,” he said. “I certainly would not support lowering standards, which is the other alternative.”
Rawlings said he expects a lawsuit, since he believes the money won’t be found.
“I think people are going to sue,” Rawlings said, “and I think it’s appropriate that they sue to help motivate us to get the money.”
Sen. Robert Neall, D-Anne Arundel, a Senate Budget committee member said Glendening’s budget needs major reworking. “I’ve seen 30 budgets and most of them I would categorize as fiction,” he said. “This one I would say is fantasy.”
But he said the Thornton recommendations should come first, because education is a constitutional mandate. “I’m not prepared to give up,” he said.
State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said the plan can’t wait until money becomes available. If the plan doesn’t go into effect in this budget, it probably never will, she said.
“I don’t want this report to collect dust,” she said. “It’s too important to our children. It is the highest priority of this state.”