- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Prince George’s County school officials said private donations will cover the $9,000 they will spend to bus students to a political rally for education funding in Annapolis on Monday.

Prince George’s schools will rent 50 to 60 buses, and the cost should be covered by $12,000 in private donations, said Lynn McCawley, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s public school system. County schools will close two hours early so teachers and students can attend the 6 p.m. rally.

As many as 10,000 teachers, students, parents and others are expected to attend the rally against a plan by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican, to reduce funding for the education initiative known as the Thornton plan.

Montgomery County public schools is planning to offer students two community-service credits for attending the rally.

A county spokeswoman said the plan was approved by the Montgomery County student-service learning coordinator.

“A number of community and PTA members called and suggested that this might be a good activity for students to earn service-learning credit,” said spokeswoman Kate Harrison. “The purpose is to provide a range of choices for students to choose from. It is the students’ decision whether or not they participate.”

Montgomery is the only county offering the credits to students for attending the 6 p.m. rally. The state mandates that public high school students earn 60 community-service credits to graduate.

The Ehrlich administration said yesterday it was dismayed to learn that school districts are helping students attend the rally.

“Governor Ehrlich is concerned that credit hours and taxpayer money are being used to entice students in such austere fiscal times,” said Shareese N. DeLeaver, an administration spokeswoman. “The governor’s budget includes a record increase of $326 million and, on Monday, hundreds of school children will be missing classes for the very education that he is fighting to protect.”

The rally is being sponsored by the Coalition for Public School Funding, a group of community activists and educators, including Montgomery County teachers.

The school district’s Web site (www.mcps.k12.md.us) states that the Montgomery County Board of Education is co-sponsoring the rally and that credits can be given for “advocacy” work that includes “activities which provide opportunities for students to lend their voices and talents to correct a problem or an injustice.”

The Maryland State Teacher’s Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both coalition members, said yesterday they have not told teachers to encourage students to attend the rally, though both said attending would be an important civics lesson.

Delegate Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery Republican, disagrees with the initiative.

“This not helping to get support for Thornton,” she said. “This is a bad idea, and it puts shadow on all the work that is being done to show the overwhelming support.”

The Thornton plan was adopted by the General Assembly in 2002 and calls for increasing school funding by $1.3 billion by 2008. The money is intended to erase the disparities between rich and poor school districts.

The plan has widespread, bipartisan support in Annapolis, but Mr. Ehrlich and lawmakers have disagreed about how to pay for it.

Mr. Ehrlich proposed last year to pay for it with an estimated $800 million in revenue from slot machines, but House Democrats rejected the plan.

Mr. Ehrlich again has submitted a slots initiative, but the projected revenue was not included last month in his $23.8 billion budget, which provided more than $300 million to satisfy Thornton but cut about $45 million in discretionary funding to large school districts such as Montgomery County.

Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, Montgomery County Democrat, thinks students should receive credit for attending the rally.

“We allow [students] to go get credit for doing campaigns and anything else that deals with community service,” she said. “I would think that Thornton probably fits that category. Education is the number-one issue in the state, and people are very, very concerned.”

Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat, said he authorized a news release about the rally to encourage parents, teachers and others to attend, but seemed surprised to learn that the schools would close early for the rally.

“I wasn’t encouraging them to let the kids out early,” he said.

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