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Wanna Testify

Advocates Angling to Lobby State Commission on School Funding

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 9/5/2001

Juggling blueberry muffins in one hand and sheaves of papers in the other, 50-some education advocates from across Baltimore convene in a sunlit classroom at Baltimore City College on the morning of Aug. 25. These schools officials, politicians, and a handful of school-system watchdog groups led by the Baltimore Education Network (BEN) are forgoing Saturday chores and outings for a shot at bringing more state money into the city's cash-strapped classrooms.

But unlike so many weekend gatherings of local do-gooders, often limited in results and scope, this BEN-sponsored workshop has the potential to affect at legislative and policy levels the long-running, divisive debate over funding of Maryland's public schools. In December, the governor's Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence will wrap up its two-year mission to rethink the state's school-funding formula. The panel--known in the schools community as the Thornton Commission after its chairperson, Howard University professor and former Prince George's County school-board chief Alvin Thornton--is holding the last in a series of Baltimore City public forums Sept. 10 at City College. (More are planned throughout the state.) Local activists see the hearing as a crucial last chance to plead Baltimore's case for priority placement in the recommendations the commission will give Gov. Parris Glendening and the General Assembly by December, and they're gathered here today for a crash course in persuasive lobbying.

The commission's task is to inform Glendening what it will cost to ensure an "adequate and equitable" education to all students across Maryland's 24 school districts, as mandated by state law. The current outlay is $4 billion a year; according to a commission consultant's preliminary study, achieving the legal mandate will cost as much as $2 billion more. Such an increase, if adopted by Annapolis, could have huge consequences for Baltimore City, where for years the tax base has shrunk in inverse proportion to the surging need for school-based services. For those gathered at City College on this late-August morning, the Sept. 10 hearing is the unofficial launch of a political season--and an election season--which they intend to influence.

And BEN project facilitator Tru Ginsberg has ideas for just how voters can let state legislators--11 of whom hold seats on the 27-member Thornton Commission, and thus are expected to attend the Sept. 10 hearing--know they mean business: "We are asking all the people who are planning to testify to wear their voter-registration cards pinned to their lapels."

"We've got to make [school funding] the legislature's No. 1 priority this year," Bebe Verdery, director of education reform at the Baltimore office of the American Civil Liberties Union, tells the group. She urges participants to think beyond affecting the Thornton Commission's pending recommendations and consider the issue in terms of voting power: "This [hearing] is the beginning of the political process. But we need a much stronger juggernaut."

Since being appointed by Glendening in fall of 1999, the Thornton Commission has been charged with attempting what numerous other task forces over the decades have been unable to do: get a firm handle on what it costs to give kids in Maryland a satisfactory education. Toward that end, the panel studied 59 schools with outstanding test scores around the state to determine what gave them an edge. (None of them are in Baltimore City.) Not surprisingly, it determined that smaller classes, high levels of parental involvement, and upper-middle-class tax bases (which mean flush government coffers) translate into high-performing schools, circumstances that leave poorer jurisdictions such as the city woefully behind the eightball.

Those findings in hand, the commission issued an interim report to the General Assembly last December, calling for $133.4 million in new education funds to be included in the fiscal-year 2002 state budget, with a spending focus on special education, transportation for disabled students, and "programmatic enhancements" such as full-day kindergarten and expanded summer school. Of that money, $30.8 million, almost a fourth of the total, was slated for Baltimore City.

None of the money made it into the FY2002 budget approved by the General Assembly in April. Legislators on the commission issued ominous warnings about the long-term impact of ignoring the recommendations--"When you don't take care of the needs you have, they don't go way. They just get bigger," Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Montgomery County) told reporters. But Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings (D-Baltimore City), chairperson of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, maintained the legislature was "restrained by our economic reality." "Education reform is not based solely on funding," he said.

Given the tepid response to its recommendations this past spring, the Thornton Commission has indicated it will likely rely on two private companies specializing in school-finance reform to bolster its case for more funding when it issues its final recommendations at year's end. While using different reporting methodologies, both companies reached the same conclusion: To adequately educate its public-school students, Maryland needs to bump schools spending by at least $2 billion a year, $300 million to $600 million of which should go to Baltimore City. One consultant, Denver-based Augenblick and Myers, reported that the state should be spending nearly double its "minimum foundation" figure of $3,901 per student, and triple that amount where special-education students are concerned.

But the devil is in the details. While the commission established early on that more state dollars are needed, it is now grappling with whether that money should be disproportionately dispersed based on need or doled out according to a local district's ability to furnish matching funds. It's a sticking point all but guaranteeing that, whatever the panel's conclusion, it will engender heated statewide debate. Baltimore City officials and activists, who favor a need-based formula, plan to press the issue at the Sept. 10 hearing and beyond.

"Kids should not suffer if the city does not have enough to make 'the match,'" Verdery tells workshop attendees. And kids in Baltimore City would suffer disproportionately because their needs are so much greater than those of their peers in other jurisdictions, she says, noting that 70 percent of city students receive free or reduced-price meals, compared to less than 1 percent in most Howard County schools.

Fired up, the audience breaks into groups to practice their three- to five-minute spiels, and they vow to get in commission members' faces on the issue of fairness.

"We know we have people in Annapolis who are saying, 'Those children aren't going anywhere. They won't be doctors or lawyers. Look at where they live,'" former City Council and city school-board member Carl Stokes says. "But Baltimore has [many examples] of excellent citizens in the world. We must tell [the commission] that our kids deserve at least a shot."

Mark Smolarz, the city school system's chief operating officer, takes a feistier tack. Noting rising test scores at some city schools, he suggests posing Baltimore's argument for more funding as a challenge. "Annapolis doesn't think we can do it," he says. "But give us the dollars and let us show you what we can do."

The Thornton Commission's final Baltimore City public forum is scheduled for 7-9 p.m. on Sept. 10 at Baltimore City College, 3220 The Alameda.

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