ANNAPOLIS – Some public services important to the state’s children could undergo substantial cuts next year in order to fully fund Maryland’s schools, says a report issued Thursday.
The Thornton Law — passed in 2002 by the General Assembly — is extensive educational reform legislation seeking to improve student performance and equalize educational quality across jurisdictions. Under Thornton, the state is scheduled to increase school funding by $1 billion per year within the next three years, according to the report issued by the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute. According to “Back to the Basics on Thornton: Why It Was Needed and What It Does,” the most substantial increases in funding are yet to be realized. Ron Pfieffer, deputy state superintendent for academic policy, said he has not yet read the report and could not comment. “I’m not sure we have to link funding with cuts in other services,” said Steve Miller, the report’s author. “We are experiencing cuts because the state has not been willing to raise more revenue.” The report explains the context for Thornton legislation, clarifies how the funding will be phased-in, estimates amounts received by each jurisdiction, and discusses how Maryland’s revenue shortfall will be affected.
Budget changes to fund Thornton so far include: $122 cut million from higher education, child care services reduced by 20 percent and numerous Medicaid reductions resulting in a dollar-for-dollar loss in federal health funds for the state. Public safety, mental health, and developmental disability services also suffer.
“Accepting these types of cuts that would negate the positive effects of full funding and implementation of the Thornton recommendations would be a letdown to Maryland children,” said Pat Foerster, Maryland State Teachers Association president. If the governor’s slot machine proposal passes, $800 million tax-free dollars will be used to fund Thornton, said Ehrlich Press Secretary Henry Fawell. The governor remains fully committed to funding Thornton as he has in the past, he said. Before Thornton, more than 50 different funding categories existed to meet the various needs of local school districts. Maryland was giving school districts way too little money on a conditional, need-by-need basis, Miller said. Thornton consolidated, leaving four funding categories and giving each jurisdiction more spending autonomy. Additional funds are set aside for counties with more students receiving free or reduced-price school lunches, having special education needs, or speaking with limited in English language proficiency. Thornton was passed in response to learning disparities between districts and poor student performances on standardized tests. The budget institute report uses eighth-grade reading levels as an example: In 2001, 46 percent of students achieved a satisfactory reading score in Kent County, Maryland’s best-performing jurisdiction. In Baltimore City, Dorchester, Allegany, Prince George’s and Wicomico counties, less than 20 percent achieved a satisfactory reading level. Current performance goals have been changed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act – demanding 100 percent of students perform at the proficient level by the 2013-2014 school year. Accountability is Thornton’s weakest component, said Miller. Currently, each school district must develop a five-year master plan outlining how they will use funds to achieve improvements in student performance, according to the report. They also must report spending. Failure to meet the goals can prompt corrective action from the state, including a take over of the district.