- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Casper R. Taylor Jr., the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, said in January that he was certain the legislature would reject a plan to put more than $1 billion into education to narrow the gap between rich and poor school systems.
Mr. Taylor, Allegany Democrat, was wrong along with almost everyone else in the legislature.
Despite sluggish revenue growth that created a big hole in the budget, the General Assembly voted to embark on a six-year plan that would increase aid substantially to the city of Baltimore and Maryland's 23 counties.
It was a stunning turnaround, given that the aid program and the cigarette-tax increase that would help pay for it were considered dead on arrival in January, when the legislative session began.
But by the end of the session, lawmakers had voted to increase aid by $1.3 billion over the next six years and to raise the cigarette tax by 34 cents a pack to pay most of the cost of the first two years of the plan.
The funds will be in addition to normal growth in state school aid. That means schools will get an increase of about $232 million next year instead of the $160 million increase proposed in the budget submitted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Maryland is continuing to pour money into schools at a time when many states are cutting education budgets because of financial problems. The National Education Association, which represents 2.5 million schoolteachers, said legislatures across the country will reduce school aid this year by at least $11 billion.
Why the difference in Maryland?
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, Baltimore Democrat, a key player in the passage of the school-aid bill, said several factors were involved: revenues that could be gained by increasing the cigarette tax; the completion of a two-year study of school funding by the Thornton Commission; and the threat of a lawsuit by poorer counties claiming the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.
"The Thornton Commission proved that state funding for education did not meet the adequacy test," Mrs. Hoffman said. "If we didn't address this legislation, a bunch of smaller counties were going to go to court."
Leaders in both houses wanted to increase school aid from the beginning, but had different opinions about how much the state could afford.
"When the session started, I was absolutely convinced that we could not start Thornton this year, primarily because the money wasn't there," Mr. Taylor said.
He wanted to put an additional $40 million or more in next year's budget for schools and delay a decision on the Thornton plan until the 2003 legislative session. But Mrs. Hoffman and Sen. Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel Democrat, who served on the Thornton Commission, weren't willing to wait.
The stalemate between the House and Senate that lasted most of the session was broken in the final week with a proposal by Mr. Taylor: The state would commit to the first two years of the Thornton Commission funding, but future increases would take effect only if the General Assembly passed a resolution certifying that money in the budget was sufficient to pay for them.
But the bill faced another serious obstacle.
Supporters knew they could not get it through the legislature without votes from Montgomery County delegates and senators, who said they were opposed because their wealthy county would be shortchanged.
Montgomery County lawmakers came on board after the bill was revised to increase the total from $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion with $80 million of the additional funding going to their county.
With House and Senate leaders and Montgomery County behind it, the bill passed by wide margins in both houses despite complaints from Republicans that the price tag was too high.
"This is a good bill, if we had the money to do it," Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Somerset Republican, said during Senate debate. "After the election passes, there's going to be a very significant tax increase, I promise."
There were also complaints that the changes demanded by Montgomery County violated the purpose of the bill, which was to help equalize per-pupil expenditures in local schools by giving poorer counties and Baltimore city a larger share of the Thornton money.
Even with the revisions to the formula, "it's more equalized than before, a lot more," Mrs. Hoffman said.
Currently, about 65 percent of state aid is wealth-based, with the richest counties getting the least amount of money per pupil and poorer counties the most. After six years, 76 percent of aid will be wealth-based, Mrs. Hoffman said.
As for those who say Maryland cannot afford such a generous school-aid package, supporters say they believe the state will find ways to pay the bill over the next six years.
"If you ask me today how I'm going to pay for anything in the budget in 2008, I can't tell you," Mrs. Hoffman said. "If we don't have the resources, we won't do it."
She said the school-aid plan was the legislature's greatest accomplishment since she became a senator in 1983.
"I really believe that with this money, ultimately we will be able to give our schoolchildren the education they deserve," Mrs. Hoffman said.

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