ANNAPOLIS – Maryland school officials may breathe a sigh of relief if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich fulfills his promise and fully funds all parts of the Thornton Law in his upcoming budget.
The Thornton reform plan, which will provide the state’s public schools with an extra $1.3 billion in state aid, has been funded, but without a designated revenue source. One optional component worth $54 million has been left to languish. That component — called the Geographic Cost of Education Index — would equalize funding between districts based on geography and high cost of education.
The index is designed to compensate counties with more students receiving free or reduced price lunches, having special education needs, or speaking with limited proficiency in the English language, according to a report issued by the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute in September.
“Some people must look at school funding and see huge amounts of money,” said John Wagner, Allegany County’s assistant superintendent of administration and finance. “But it takes huge amounts of money just to maintain the status quo of the system.”
Although the governor has said he considers Thornton fully funded without the provision, state school officials disagree.
“Thornton cannot be fully funded without the index,” State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has said.
Last session, Ehrlich declined to provide index funding in his budget. Without specifically addressing the index, Shareese DeLeaver, Ehrlich’s press secretary, said, “The governor intends to fully fund Thornton” when he releases his budget in January.
Addressing withstanding discrepancies is paramount.
“This is the most important area in the budget that the governor has to address,” said Alvin Thornton, Thornton Commission chairman. “And this is an important year for the governor because it is a pre-election year. If he does not fulfill his promise there will be a huge public outcry from all segments.”
In the past, Ehrlich asked the state to approve slot machines to fund the entire Thornton initiative, and address the $800 million budget gap for fiscal year 2006. But slots approval has been blocked every time.
Now schools are counting on the state’s continuing economic improvement and significant political will to assure Thornton’s full funding.
“Given that there are plenty of one-time revenues this year, the governor doesn’t need to cut Thornton,” said Steve Hill, Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute director. There is a surplus from the prior fiscal year and corporations are now paying back taxes under the amnesty program passed last year, he said.
But no one really knows what Ehrlich will do.
“It is too early to know. You can never really predict what will happen in a legislative session,” said Delegate John Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, House Appropriations Committee member.
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