WASHINGTON – Maryland ranks 47th in the nation in the percentage of state aid it provides to public school students, a practice that creates inequity in school funding across the state, according to a recent national report.
“Maryland appears to be targeting its state resources to needy areas, but because the state’s share of funding is low that money can only go so far,” said Kathryn Doherty, the research director for the “Quality Counts” report released Tuesday by Education Week.
Because most of Maryland’s school funding comes from local tax revenue, poorer districts are left with fewer funds, Doherty said.
State educators acknowledge the problem, but see a solution in last year’s “groundbreaking” Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, the so-called Thornton law. The act, if fully funded over a five-year period, will redistribute tax dollars to target the greatest aid to the poorest school districts.
But with a new legislature and a new governor, and a state budget shortfall that could be as high as $1.8 billion over the next two years, officials admit that funding for equity in schools could be vulnerable.
The Education Week report said state aid to students in Maryland accounts for only 40.2 percent of total per pupil costs. Virginia and Delaware cover 45.6 and 70.2 percent of per pupil costs, respectively.
The report gave Maryland a grade of D- for equity, to Virginia’s C- and Delaware’s grade of B. It adjusted for regional cost differences when calculating equity in funding
The Thornton law, if fully funded, would bring Maryland’s share of local per pupil education costs up to 49 percent, said Alvin Thornton, chairman of the commission that recommended the new formula.
The current disproportionate funding in the state is a result of a history of strong county governments in the state, said Carl W. Smith, executive director the Maryland Associations of Boards of Education.
Some jurisdictions, like Montgomery County, fund millions of dollars over what they are mandated by law, Smith said, while other counties fund as little as $20 over what is mandatory.
“Some children live around property that is very valuable in this state and some live in jurisdictions that are just too poor to fund their children adequately,” said Thornton, an associate provost at Howard University.
In Somerset County, for example, Thornton said “children are picking chickens and in Montgomery County their parent’s are NIH (National Institutes of Health) scientists, yet they are held to the same standards.”
Standards and accountability were a bright spot for Maryland, which got an A in the Education Week report. Doherty said the grade reflects Maryland’s comprehensive assessment program.
Thornton agreed that the state has a demanding testing program, but argued that the state needs to back up high standards with adequate funding for all students.
“Parents have been bludgeoned with poor results on assessments when the system was grossly under-funded,” he said.
Maryland Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard said the state hopes to “come up better next year” in the Quality Counts report card.
Thornton expects it will do better — if the Thornton law is fully funded. If it is not, he said, he believes there will be “a legal problem.”
But Thornton concedes that even if his commission’s recommendations are fully funded it is not likely to entirely solve the problem, adding that there is only “complete equity in church and in heaven.”