- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Montgomery County schools are encouraging students to earn community-service credits by participating in a teachers rally for education funding Feb. 9 in Annapolis.

And Prince George’s County schools plan to close two hours early so teachers can attend the rally.

State Delegate Jean B. Cryor, Montgomery County Republican, said the idea of offering community-service credits to students attending the rally is “disheartening.”

“We are thrilled to have them come. We encourage that,” said Mrs. Cryor. “But we can’t have them rewarded for doing this. The reward itself is doing public service. That’s the good part and that’s the end of it.”

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

“I wasn’t encouraging them to let the kids out early,” said Mr. Johnson, a Democrat.

Rescheduled from Jan. 26 because of snow, the rally aims to elicit support for full funding of the Thornton plan, a multiyear education-reform initiative that calls for an extra $365 million for public schools next year.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has cut funding for the Thornton plan to help reduce a $1 billion deficit left by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat. Mr. Ehrlich has proposed funding the plan with revenue generated from slot-machine licenses.

The Feb. 9 rally is being organized by the Coalition for Public School Funding, a collection of teachers unions, local and state boards of education, and community activist groups.

According to the Montgomery County public schools’ Web site (www.mcps.k12.md.us), the county Board of Education is a co-sponsor of the rally. The Web site also tells students they can receive credit for two hours of community service by attending the rally.

Under a 1992 measure adopted by the State Board of Education, public school students must perform community service as a requirement for graduation. The definition of what constitutes community service is determined by individual school districts.

Montgomery County students are required to perform 60 hours — including “advocacy” work, which “involves activities which provide opportunities for students to lend their voices and talents to correct a problem or an injustice,” according to the Web site. Students must get an event organizer or other responsible adult to sign a service pamphlet to verify that they participated in an event.

In 2000, two Walter Johnson High School students fulfilled the community-service requirement by stuffing envelopes, organizing library materials and ordering reports for the Capitol Hill-based Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization that supports the legalization of marijuana.

A Montgomery County schools spokeswoman referred calls for comment to Pam Meador, the county’s student-service learning coordinator, who did not return a phone call.

Diana Saquella, manager of government relations for the Maryland State Teachers Association, said she sees nothing wrong with offering students an incentive to participate in a political activity.

“Why not?” she asked. “It’s an issue that affects them directly. It’s about time students got involved in political issues that affect them and their families.”

Mrs. Saquella said that students are not being “sent in blindly” to Annapolis but know about the need for school funding.

“They are not just blaming it on anybody but understand the state’s whole fiscal situation,” she said.

In Prince George’s County, officials issued a news release Jan. 23 telling parents that schools would close two hours early Jan. 26, the rally’s original date. A schools spokeswoman did not return a phone call seeking to determine whether the same plan would be in effect Feb. 9.

Meanwhile, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran this month raised doubts about the legality of a requirement in the Thornton plan that lawmakers vote in each of the next four years to certify that Maryland can afford the additional education spending.

If lawmakers vote against the full amount, a smaller increase automatically goes into effect. Mr. Curran said such a vote amounts to an illegal “legislative veto” that upends the budget process and could result in lawsuits.

The education-reform plan, which calls for school funding to increase by $1.3 billion by the 2007-08 school year, is named after Alvin Thornton, who headed the commission that recommended the reform measures. The General Assembly adopted the plan in 2002.

Maryland will spend $4.5 billion of its $22 billion budget on primary and secondary public education this fiscal year.

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