ANNAPOLIS – Senate leaders trimmed and threatened to ax a private school textbook program if Gov. Parris N. Glendening does not fund a pricey public school reform his budget ignored.
The Senate’s revision of Glendening’s budget trimmed $1 million of the $5 million the governor promised to private schools for textbooks.
The private schools won’t get any public money, lawmakers decided, if Glendening fails to fund recommendations from an education reform panel known as the Thornton Commission.
“I thought it was an elegant solution,” said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D- Baltimore. “It is a way to get Thornton moving.”
The so-called Thornton Commission, formally known as the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, said schools need $130 million next year and $1.1 billion over five years to correct unequal and inadequate funding.
Whether schools will get any of that money remains in doubt.
Glendening supports the recommendations, but did not fund them in his proposed $22 billion 2003 budget.
Now lawmakers will have to cut programs or approve new revenue sources such as a higher cigarette tax if schools are to receive any of the recommended money.
The General Assembly may cut, but not add to, the governor’s budget. The Senate made 398 changes including weighty cuts to higher education and environmental programs and other high-dollar decisions. Its plan must eventually be reconciled with a House version.
In the Senate’s inch-thick book of budget changes, the two-page textbook item seemed small, but it spawned more debate than any other measure.
“Truth, honesty, segregation and wealth all came up on this issue,” said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County. “It’s about kids and books, and we’re not even giving the kids the books, we’re just leasing them the books.”
The program allows the state to buy approved, secular textbooks and loan them to private schools. Glendening had promised to include the program in his budget for three years. It was funded at $6 million and $5 million the last two years.
Religious groups and private school supporters have lobbied heavily for the program each year. Glendening has not, in comparison with other projects.
“He has kept his commitment,” said Glendening spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie. “But he has always told the legislators to vote their conscience on this issue.”
While some senators spoke in support of the program, the lawmakers mostly argued over whether to endanger the program by linking it to the Thornton plan, or kill it decisively on the Senate floor.
Public schools need all the money they can get, several senators said.
“If there was any year to put public schools first, this is the year,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, who offered an unsuccessful amendment to drop the program. His county stands to gain about $30 million next year from the Thornton plan, and is hoping for at least an initial boost in funding.
“We’ve talked about a thumbprint, a footprint, an imprint for Thornton,” Pinsky said, “but so far there has not been dollar one.”
The debate spanned the Constitution, separation of church and state, segregation and inequality. A balcony full of elementary school children watched and cameras rolled as lawmakers decried the “deplorable” condition of the public schools.
Funneling even a little public money to private schools is the beginning of a dual education system that fosters an underclass, said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore City.
“You can’t serve two masters,” he said. “The clash in education is coming down the road. Pretty soon there’s going to be a battle royal for these public dollars.”
Cutting the program would not directly increase money for public schools, Neall said, because the textbook money comes from a separate fund.
“This will not be the end of public education as we know it,” Neall said. “And if there is no Thornton money, it will be zeroed out.”
The private school textbook program has inspired impassioned debate since Glendening started it, Neall said.
“We spend more time on that issue than on any other issue,” he said, comparing the conflict to choking on a gnat.
“In our quiet moments, when we have our beverage of choice in front of us, we ruminate about what (budget cuts) will take up the most time,” he said. “I thought it might be some of the Draconian cuts we made. But here we are, setting records on this one very small item.”