A School Lesson in Maryland

Maryland has added a chapter to a long-running story in education: how to make sure poor school districts have the means to provide a basic education.

That issue, replete with tensions between local control and state authority, has usually found its way to the courts. More than two dozen state supreme courts have ruled on school funding, usually finding for plaintiffs who seek more educational money.

The courts' keynote: State constitutional requirements, which typically call for a "thorough" or "adequate" education for all, must be met.

Maryland hasn't gone the litigation route, though some of its poorer districts have been on the verge of that. Instead, the legislature created a commission in 1999 to study its school-financing structure and recommend changes. The commission's guide was the state's requirement of an adequate education for all.

But what's "adequate"?

That word could denote the minimum necessary. The commission, however, decided it meant that all schools should be equipped to meet Maryland's current performance goals. These include attendance over 94 percent, a dropout rate no higher than 3.75 percent, and a 70 percent passing rate for elementary and middle-school students on state tests.

What would that cost? A study looked at 59 Maryland schools that already meet those standards and what they spend. The result was a recommendation to nearly double state education aid over the next six years, from $3,500 per student to $6,000 – a total spending boost of $1.3 billion.

Remarkably, at a time of tight state budgets, Maryland's lawmakers early this month made the commission's recommendations law. Thus one state, at least, has moved to solve the school-funding dilemma without pressure from judges.

A glance around the country finds much more controversy than consensus à la Maryland. In Texas, debate rumbles over a court-impelled "Robin Hood" property-tax structure that transfers money from rich districts to poorer ones. In Ohio, a court-appointed mediator fails to resolve an 11-year dispute over school funding. A judge in North Carolina demands stronger state action to assure that each student gets the constitutionally required "sound basic education."

Maryland doesn't necessarily have smooth sailing ahead. The first two years of its program are funded by a boost in the state cigarette tax. Beyond that loom hard decisions on how to pay for more years of increased aid.

But its setting of high goals, based on an ambitious definition of "adequate," is a positive note in the evolving story of school performance.

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