- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday asked the state’s schools superintendent to investigate circumstances of Monday’s rally in support of full funding for an education-improvement plan that was attended by thousands of students.

He said his concerns centered on one school district giving community service credits for students who attended the evening event and on who paid for the shuttle buses that took them there.

Mr. Ehrlich said Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who delivered a speech at the rally, “is going to have an announcement this week, and she has my support.” He added that he and Mrs. Grasmick were surprised how the rally deviated from its original purpose.

“The teachers union turned it into a demand to recount the results of the [2002] election,” the Republican governor said. “The leadership of that union simply leans to the Democratic Party, and everyone knows it.”

The Coalition for Public School Funding, a collection of education and community groups — including the Maryland State Teachers Association — sponsored the rally.

Mr. Ehrlich said he was inside his residence attending meetings and did not see the rally. Neither Mr. Ehrlich nor Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was asked to speak at the rally.

“We will never really know the [rally’s] cost,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “I think when they closed the schools early, it was a bad lesson to teach the kids.”

Rally organizers estimated that 8,000 people — including students who were shuttled in school buses and chartered buses — participated in the event, which expressed support for full funding of the Thornton Act.

The initiative — named after Alvin Thornton, who led the commission that recommended the reform of state schools — calls for $1.3 billion in extra education spending by the 2007-08 school year.

Critics of the rally said the school districts were self-serving in encouraging student participation with offers of community-service credits, early dismissal and “no homework” passes. They also said the schools were hypocritical to ask for more funds while spending public money to inflate the rally’s attendance.

Montgomery County public schools gave two hours of community-service credit to students who attended the teacher-organized rally.

The State Board of Education in 1992 began requiring that all students complete 60 hours of community service before they graduate from high school. Counties are given latitude in deciding what is acceptable community service.

“I think we need to take a look at the entire program,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Giving back is a moral obligation, which I support. But forcing it as a graduation requirement is a different matter, particularly if this were a pro-Second Amendment… or pro-life rally. Do you think the [teachers] union would be quick to give credit for [that]?”

Prince George’s County public schools did not offer credit to students but used buses to take teachers, parents and students to the rally. The $9,000 cost was covered by private donations, a county schools spokeswoman said.

Passed by the General Assembly in 2002, the Thornton Act calls for $365 million in additional education spending this year. Mr. Ehrlich has funded all but $40 million of the extra spending, citing the need to close a $700 million deficit left by his predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

Mr. Ehrlich has proposed funding the Thornton plan with revenue from slot-machine licenses, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, last year led the charge in killing the governor’s legislation.

Assistant House Minority Whip William J. Frank yesterday said the money is simply not there to fully fund the plan.

“I think that funding Thornton is fiscally irresponsible,” said Mr. Frank, Baltimore County Republican.

If the state were to fully fund the plan, it would require deep cuts in spending on the environment and corrections, he said.

“We simply can’t afford everything, and we have to prioritize,” Mr. Frank said. “The money is simply not there after fiscal year ‘05 … so we need to stretch it out, but do it over an additional three or four years. And that is fiscal reality.”

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