- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Teachers, administrators, parents and students from schools across the state converged on the State House last night to rally for full funding of the Thornton school-improvement plan.

Brought to the rally by fleets of school buses and chartered buses, the demonstrators filled the parking lot of the U.S. Naval Academy’s stadium before marching down Rowe Boulevard to Lawyers Mall in front of the State House.

Many chanted “Fund our schools,” and others waved signs saying, “Show us the money,” as about a dozen speakers addressed the crowd, estimated by rally organizers to be about 8,000 people — including the students, many of whom received community-service credit and time off from school to attend.

“I want to thank the governor for $326 million, but we need full funding,” state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told the crowd. “And we must have this funding to meet the standards we have set.”

The Thornton Act, passed in 2002, calls for $365 million in additional education spending this year. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, 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.

But some of the younger demonstrators last night seemed uncertain about the reasons for the rally.

“I really didn’t know very much about the bill,” said a 16-year-old junior from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

Others offered general reasons for rallying at the State House.

“We need to protest because we need money in order to have a better school system,” said a 14-year-old ninth-grader from John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring.

Montgomery County, home of Montgomery Blair and John F. Kennedy high schools, offered students two community-service credits for attending the rally. Students must perform at least 60 hours of community service to graduate from high school.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s County closed its schools two hours early to allow teachers and students to attend the rally. School officials said they needed the extra time so as not to conflict with the regular bus schedules.

“We really didn’t lose much downtime,” Byron Williams, vice principal of Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, said of yesterday’s early dismissal. “We are set up to have early days. Overall, it did not hurt us. … I think the ends justify the means.”

However, some critics said the schools enticed the students to participate to inflate the rally’s numbers. About 40 counterdemonstrators protested behind the rally podium, waving signs that read “Ehrlich Steele 4 education,” referring to Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

“People are only hearing one side of the story, and they should know that the governor inherited a huge deficit and that he has increased funding to education,” said Georgia K. Woerner, a sixth- and seventh-grade science teacher in Roland Park Middle School in Baltimore.

Mrs. Woerner said students at her school were given “no homework” passes if they and their parents attended the rally.

Dan E. Purcell, a junior at the University of Maryland at College Park and a member of the College Republicans, said he didn’t think a balanced picture was being presented at the rally.

“Ehrlich made a promise to fully fund Thornton, and he did last year,” Mr. Purcell said. “If the legislature would compromise and the [House] speaker would allow a second source of revenue, we would not have the huge problem we are having.”

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.

Last night’s rally was organized by a collection of educators and community-activist groups calling itself the Coalition for Public School Funding.

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

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