ANNAPOLIS – Full funding for Maryland’s sweeping education reform plan known as Thornton is in jeopardy, education officials said this week.
At issue is state money — totaling $54 million — set aside for school districts with higher costs of living and educational resources and called the Geographic Cost of Education Index.
Plans for the index have been in the works since the 2004 fiscal year, and the full formula has finally been developed for use in fiscal 2006, said Mary Clapsaddle, assistant state superintendent for business services.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich did not fund the index in the past two budget cycles as he wrangled with the General Assembly over new revenues to pay for the reform.
“Thornton may not be fully funded without the index,” State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said at a State Board of Education meeting Tuesday.
Delegate Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery, Thornton Commission member and index bill sponsor, said she didn’t know exactly why the General Assembly didn’t make the funding mandatory. She said budget constraints and the failure of the governor’s slot machine proposal made it hard to secure the extra funding.
“The governor has to take responsibility whatever he chooses to do,” said Alvin Thornton, Thornton commission chairman. “If it goes unfunded again it should be a major point of concern.”
Ehrlich’s office referred calls to the state superintendent’s office.
While Ehrlich pushed for the state to approve slot machines to fund such an initiative, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and other state Democrats favored tax increases. Despite an $800 million budget gap for fiscal 2006, education advocates like Cryor are still lobbying for full funding.
Getting all sides to agree to the changes in the Thornton commission report was difficult, said Thornton, and the compromises forged are worth saving.
“The magic was creating a consensus (among jurisdictions) where everyone felt they were being treated equally,” said Thornton. He said that leaving the index unfunded won’t cripple the education reform, but might undermine its consensus.
In the proposed 2006 budget, all 24 state jurisdictions will receive more state money than in the previous year. Baltimore City and Prince George’s, Baltimore and Montgomery counties are scheduled for the greatest increases.
If the index funds are included, Prince George’s is due an increase of more than $92 million. Baltimore City is second with more than $72 million expected. Baltimore County is slated for nearly $40 million and Montgomery expects almost $37.7 million.
Final figures will be released at the state board meeting Sept. 30 after enrollment counts are made.
But increased funding does not address equalization across counties. When the Thornton Commission released its original proposal it came in two parts: to increase state funding for elementary and secondary education, and to equalize funding per pupil between rich and poor districts.
While the former is being met, the latter is possibly being overlooked.
“Much of the current debate on the Thornton law focuses on the question of whether the state can afford the mandated increases in spending for K-through-12 education,” said Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute director Steve Hill. “Less attention has been given to the law’s primary purpose: to ensure that all students receive an adequate education, independent of where in the state they live.”
The four counties with the largest overall increases also are among the 13 jurisdictions in consideration for index funds. Other counties include: Anne Arundel, Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Howard, Kent, Queen Anne’s, and St. Mary’s, according to a study based on statistics from the Maryland State Department of Education.
“Some people might look at school funding and see huge amounts of money,” said John Wagner, Allegany County assistant superintendent of administration and finance. “But it takes huge amounts of money just to maintain the status quo of the system.”