- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

DUNDALK, Md. — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year will include a record increase in funding for public schools, and he said he remains committed to fully funding the Thornton school aid plan — regardless of whether slot machines are legalized.

Mr. Ehrlich described the Thornton law as “a wonderful concept” that passed in 2002 without a funding source, and he said it was easier to increase funding for schools this year because the state is seeing a surplus.

“The premise here is very simple: Simply because you’re born to parents with less money, or simply because you’re born in a poorer community, those facts should not be a predictor with respect to the quality of public education,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “That’s really what Thornton’s all about, so we’re going to fund it. We’re going to pump money into poorer communities and, in many cases, neglected schools.”

During his 2002 campaign, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, proposed legalizing slot machines as a way to fully fund Thornton, but a slots bill has failed to pass the legislature three years running. In the meantime, Maryland’s economy has improved, resulting in a budget surplus that Mr. Ehrlich’s staff has pegged at $1.7 billion.

Mr. Ehrlich plans to ask for $462 million in new funds for public education, which would bring the total state investment in public schools to $4.47 billion.

The governor’s proposed increases for public education come two days after he announced he will raise higher-education funding by $172 million for the upcoming fiscal year an increase that state university officials hope will enable them to keep tuition increases relatively low during the next academic year.

The governor proposed $261 million in new funds for public school construction, plus a reallocation of $20 million in existing funds.

Some Democratic lawmakers and the gubernatorial campaigns of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan have asked Mr. Ehrlich to pledge $400 million for school construction funding.

“You can make up any number you want, but you also have to worry about how you pay for it,” Mr. Ehrlich said, adding that his administration will direct the funds to the schools that need them most.

Mr. Ehrlich chose Holabird Middle School in Baltimore County to make his announcement, a school that he said would receive $6.7 million for renovations.

Mr. Ehrlich said the funding increases will help prepare students in communities like Dundalk and his native Arbutus near Baltimore for the changing job market. The neighborhoods around Holabird Middle have been hurt by the loss of industrial jobs, including the closure of Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant.

“The jobs that were in this community and my community growing up, to a large extent, do not even exist,” Mr. Ehrlich said.

The new funding mostly will go to existing programs, but Mr. Ehrlich wants to direct funds to a few new ones. Among his requests:

• More than $1.4 million to improve services for people with autism and begin a pilot program to screen children for autism.

• $1.2 million to fund school breakfasts for 27,000 more children, bringing the total number who eat breakfast at school to 75,000 statewide.

In addition, Mr. Ehrlich said he would ask for $4 million to help private and parochial schools buy textbooks, an increase of $1 million over what was allocated last year.

Mr. Ehrlich also proposed creating the Governor’s Teacher Excellence Award, which would give $25,000 cash prizes each to 20 teachers a year.

“It’s a nice little incentive package for excellence in the classroom,” he said.

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