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Robust Economy to Drive State Legislatures in Different Directions
In Md., School Funding Boost Likely

By Lisa Frazier
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 1998; Page B01

Nine months after losing a hard-fought battle in Annapolis for more state education aid, the leaders of Prince George's, Montgomery and other suburban counties appear poised to collect a fresh infusion of dollars for their rapidly growing public school systems.

As the Maryland General Assembly prepares to convene Wednesday for its annual 90-day session, state leaders are rallying around plans to distribute roughly $50 million more annually to the state's 23 counties, including about $10 million apiece for Prince George's and Montgomery, the state's largest counties. The money would go largely to enhance programs for poor children and for those for whom English is a second language.

Working together in an unusual alliance, the counties tried to secure a similar plan last year as the price for going along with a major financial aid package for the Baltimore City public schools. They largely failed, as Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and other state leaders argued that their plan was unaffordable.

But a booming economy -- and the resulting boost in tax receipts -- and a desire by many state leaders to avoid bitter regional acrimony in advance of this year's statewide elections have helped rejuvenate the idea. Glendening is also eager to shore up political support in his suburban Washington political base, as he gears up for his reelection campaign.

Although county leaders are reluctant to celebrate prematurely, the anticipated approval of new funding by the legislature may signal the growing political influence of the Washington suburbs in a legislative body that has traditionally been dominated by Baltimore.

"It's a great sign to Montgomery and Prince George's that by sticking together, we were able to make something good happen for all areas of the state," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "Ten to 15 years ago, this never would have happened. The Baltimore City agreement would have passed, and there would have been nothing for anybody else."

Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) said he feels vindicated that state leaders seem to have recognized that a more equitable statewide approach was needed in dispensing education funds.

"I'm simply happy that some of the principles we espoused have been accepted," Curry said. "Obviously, it's a progressive step. I think it's headed in the right direction. But it would be premature to call it a victory."

Curry's caution may reflect the reality that the needs of Prince George's are far greater than more wealthy Montgomery's. Prince George's school officials say they will need about $100 million a year over the next five years -- much more than has been proposed -- to build and operate new schools, as well as enhance academic programs in a district whose academic performance ranks second from the bottom in the state. Glendening and other state leaders have yet to commit to such sums and may insist on management reforms in Prince George's schools as the price. Moreover, some legislative leaders have expressed great concern that the state may not be able to afford even the funds that are being discussed, despite good economic times that have resulted in Maryland's biggest budget surplus in years -- $260 million.

Over the next four years, the proposed new education spending would cost at least $180 million and perhaps close to $200 million, on top of at least $8 billion the state already is scheduled to distribute to the counties during the same period. With local aid outstripping other parts of the state budget, some General Assembly leaders wonder how much is enough.

"We're doing more and more and getting less and less credit for it," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). "The counties have huge surpluses. They're giving pay increases to their employees, something the state hasn't been able to do in years."

Even so, Miller acknowledged the powerful political appeal behind the new push for education spending, an initiative propelled in large measure by the outspoken advocacy of Duncan, Curry and other county executives.

The issue came alive during last year's General Assembly session after Glendening and other state leaders proposed a major rescue package for the long-troubled Baltimore public schools. The five-year package included $254 million in new state funds for the Baltimore schools, as well as stricter state oversight of the city school system.

Glendening and others justified the package in part on the grounds that Baltimore schools had such concentrations of poor children that they merited special attention from the state. But delegates from Montgomery, Prince George's and other suburban jurisdictions argued that every county needed more money for its poor, and they threatened to vote against the deal unless an additional $332 million was added for the 23 counties.

By standing together in their quest for more money, Prince George's and Montgomery delegates were able to delay a vote on the Baltimore agreement until late in the session. In the end, they failed, getting only about half of what they sought. But legislative leaders took note of their solidarity. That alone was a big political victory, some say.

"Our perspective has to be heard," said Del. Kumar Barve (D), chairman of the Montgomery House delegation. "What happened last year has caused the leadership of the state to reassess where the fundamental balance of power in the state is."

The day after the session ended last year, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) announced that a task force would be appointed to study the issue and recommend more equitable approaches to distributing state education aid.

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick put together the $46 million Targeted Improvement Program for Public Education for the task force, which approved the plan, along with several other recommendations.

The House leadership subsequently introduced legislation encompassing Grasmick's plan, which already has the support of the state's six largest counties and Baltimore City. The financing plan would expire after four years, the same time as the Baltimore agreement.

Senate leaders have voiced more skepticism about additional education funding, but Miller predicted that his chamber will, in the end, pass a similar measure. The exact sums for the counties depend largely on what Glendening decides to put in his proposed state budget later this month.

The governor said last week that he will offer the counties slightly more than the House bill will, but he declined to say how much, pending an announcement tomorrow. Glendening said he has always maintained that he would make special allocations to education when economic conditions made it feasible.

"We have that opportunity [now]," he said. "We've worked hard for three years."

Many state leaders predicted the issue was pretty much settled, aside from haggling over details.

"Back in April, we had great polarization throughout the state over education financing," Taylor said. "The fact of the matter is we will be able to celebrate a major historic victory early in the session."

Leaders from Prince George's and Montgomery, who often have worked on separate agendas in the legislature, say they will team up more often in the future on other issues. To further cultivate their alliance, the two legislative delegations, as well as their local government officials, plan to gather for a reception Jan. 18 at the University of Maryland.

"I see it as something that's going to be ongoing as we look for empowerment in the region," said Del. Nathaniel Exum (D), chairman of the Prince George's House delegation. "It's something that's long overdue."

Others predict the alliance eventually will splinter because of fundamental differences between the two jurisdictions. Indeed, some legislative leaders privately say that by joining forces with Montgomery, a wealthier jurisdiction that has one of the state's highest-performing school systems, Prince George's leaders may have squandered an opportunity to get more state money based on the county's special needs.

House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) called the alliance between the two counties "a cult" with a "misguided vision."

"I think it was irresponsible politics," he said. "But we're going to move forward. We could have achieved the same results without the harsh feelings and the balkanization of the last session."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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