ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers struck a deal Thursday on a sweeping education reform plan that would rewrite state funding formulas to give more money to poorer school districts and could give local school systems an extra $1.3 billion over six years.
The initial funding would come from a proposed 34-cent-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax, which would raise about $100 million a year to begin funding the program. Lawmakers would have to identify a revenue source in two years to continue funding the increases.
That agreement — to return to the funding issue in two years — cleared the way for a House committee to pass the plan Thursday, after House members had balked at what they called a fiscally irresponsible Senate plan.
The bill still has to be approved by the full House and sent back to the Senate for its OK before the legislative session ends Monday, but supporters were already declaring victory Thursday.
“It’s a landmark decision for the children of Maryland,” said State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who called funding the plan the highest priority of the state. “It’s precedent-setting for the state, precedent-setting for the nation.”
The plan stems from a two-year, state-mandated study by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, commonly called the Thornton Commission. Besides calling for increased money for schools, the plan rewrites funding formulas by giving more money to districts with less wealth.
The new funding formula also would give local districts more flexibility in spending, but implement accountability measures. It provides additional money for special education, student transportation, early childhood and adult education.
Although widely praised by lawmakers and educators, the plan faced numerous hurdles because of its hefty price tag and its focus on aid to poorer counties.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening did not include the plan in his fiscal 2003 budget, saying the state could not afford it. Montgomery County lawmakers vowed to oppose the plan unless their county received more money from it.
Those concerns were addressed in a Senate bill, passed Tuesday, that tied the increased school funding to the proposed cigarette tax and tinkered with the funding formula changes so that wealthier counties could also get some additional aid for their neediest students.
But an impasse formed when House leaders called the Senate bill fiscally irresponsible: The cigarette tax increase is projected to raise about $100 million a year, but the new school formula would cost more than that by the second year. Committing to the funding formula would create a structural deficit in 2005, House members said.
Under the compromise proposed Thursday by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, lawmakers must pass a joint resolution after two years ensuring money is available to continue funding increases. If they do not, they can still increase funding, but in smaller increments.
“It’s a victory for fiscal responsibility and for the children of this state,” said Delegate Howard K. “Pete” Rawlings, D-Baltimore, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The version passed Thursday by the House Ways and Means Committee, and given preliminary approval by the full House, provides an additional $73 million for schools the first year and increasing amounts for six years, building toward the accumulated $1.3 billion increase.
The House also added $1 million each for Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties for two years.
The bill ties $10 million in funding for Prince George’s County to school board restructuring plans still under negotiation. The bill gives Prince George’s an extra $22.5 million next year if the board is restructured, and $12.5 million if it isn’t.
That provision sparked controversy, but restructuring opponents were reluctant to vote down the entire bill. Delegate Obie Patterson, D-Prince George’s, choked back tears, shook his head, and pounded his desk before finally casting a vote.
“Yes,” he said softly. “Not because I believe justice has been served here, but because I know the needs of funding in my county.”
Taylor called the compromise “absolutely historic.”
“We’re putting in place a game plan to ensure we’re delivering excellence in education and we’re doing it with a fiscally sound revenue stream,” Taylor said. “We should take a couple seconds to dwell on how absolutely historic it would be to put this kind of public education.”