ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich said he would consider extending the phase-in period of a $1.3 billion education reform initiative if the Senate president and House speaker can agree to a “game plan” for it before next year’s General Assembly session.
“If the Democratic leadership comes to me with a proposal to extend Thornton, I would certainly consider it,” Ehrlich said. “It would have to be a joint effort.”
Ehrlich’s comments come more than a week after Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, said the failure of the governor’s slot machine bill may cause funding of the Thornton Plan, which phases in education dollars incrementally through 2008, to be stretched out over several more years.
Thornton, passed in 2002, requires unprecedented education funding increases without providing a revenue source to pay for it. Ehrlich had originally proposed financing the remainder of the plan through his $800 million slot machine bill, though he later said he would fund it despite slots’ failure.
But the remainder of Thornton funds may still be spread out over more years, Miller said.
“Thornton funding is going to be delayed” because of the slots failure, he said. “We’re facing fiscal hell next year.”
Thornton was passed to create education equity among counties and to specifically address needs of students who are poor, in special education or have limited English skills.
Under Thornton, the state’s 24 jurisdictions are required to develop comprehensive master plans on their use of federal, state and local dollars. In addition, school systems must offer full-day kindergarten to all students by 2008 and pre-kindergarten to poor children by the same year.
Because the state is facing an estimated $800 million budget gap, lawmakers tried, and failed, to extend Thornton phase-in funding by four years. Supporters of the plan won several other battles, including the guarantee – for now – of full funding through 2008 and the placement into law of a formula to alleviate cost-of-living differences between counties.
Lawmakers also rejected a built-in, stepped-down Thornton funding formula, called a “trigger” provision, by passing legislation to overturn it. The so-called “Thornton Lite” formula would have cut funding by about $2 billion through 2008.
In overturning the trigger provision, the Legislature was aided by an Attorney General’s memo that it could be unconstitutional, and leaving it intact could open the state to a lawsuit.
“We operate in good faith,” said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery. “We were a little stunned” to learn the trigger was unconstitutional.
Ehrlich allowed the Legislature’s action overturning the trigger to become law without his signature, thereby shoring up the final four years of funding.
“We’re happy with the way that it worked out,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s.
But Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, said the Legislature skirted its responsibility in not debating whether the state could afford the rest of Thornton.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t address a long-term funding source, which the trigger would have done,” the House minority whip said.
The state operating budget included about a $319 million increase in education dollars, a slight trim from Ehrlich’s proposed $326 million increase. But excluded from the budget was an estimated $45 million to compensate some counties for their high costs of living.
That money fell into a gap in the law after the Attorney General ruled it was not an official part of Thornton, so the Senate tucked it into its slots bill. When slots died, the provision was spared by rolling it into the appropriations bill, however counties receiving the extra dollars would not get them until fiscal year 2006, and then only if the state has the available funds.
“Next year when the governor looks at the budget, he’s going to see (the formula) there,” Miller said.
School construction made several gains this year, as well. The Senate killed a bill to increase funds by closing a corporate tax “loophole,” but the Legislature approved a proposal to allow counties to forge public-private partnerships to pay for school construction and renovation. In addition, the General Assembly increased state school construction dollars by about $15 million, to a total of $114 million.
A bill to allow counties to opt out of Thornton’s full-day kindergarten requirement failed.
The Baltimore City schools financial crisis – the system faces an estimated $58 million deficit – prompted lawmakers to require local school boards to provide additional fiscal audits to the State Department of Education, the governor and the General Assembly.
“Accountability measures,” Currie said, “will hopefully prevent that.”