Maryland's system of financing public schools, which relies on local jurisdictions to pay part of the cost of educating their children, doesn't create unconstitutionally unequal education for children in different parts of the state, state attorney general Francis B. Burch said last week.
In a prepared statement accompanying the 13-page opinion, which is not binding on courts, Burch said that "although the state's systems of school financing may not be perfect . . . it is able to withstand constitutional scrutiny."
The opinion issued at the request of State Senator John Carroll Byrnes (D-Baltimore), comes in the wake of a series of conflicting decisions which courts in different states have issued on the complex question of school financing.
The highest courts in three states - New Jersey, California and Connecticut - have struck down as unconstitutional school financing systems that relied heavily on local property taxes.
According to evidence presented in those cases, the reliance on property taxes usually means school systems in poorer areas - generally the inner cities or remote rural sections - spend far less per pupil than wealthier suburban districts.
However, the highest courts of five other states - Oregon, Illinois, Idaho, Washington, and Arizona - have rejected the notion that their school financing systems resulted in unconstitutionally unequal education for public school students of their states.
The Supreme Court has issued only one ruling on the issue, in a 1973 case. In that ruling, Burch said, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Texas system of school financing, primarily because education was deemed not to be a federal constitutional right.
The contradictary rulings of the state courts have relied primarily on state constitutions.
In speculating on how the Maryland Court of Appeals might rule in a similar case, Burch said Maryland's top appeals court has tended to follow "the guidelines established by the Supreme Court in determining whether state action has denied individuals equal protection."
Maryland's school financing system mixes state, federal and local funds, with different percentages of each being used in different jurisdictions.
For instance. in 1975, Montgomery County, one of the two wealthiest counties in the nation, used state and federal grants to pay for 29 percent of its education costs; rural Garrett County in far western Maryland paid 44 percent of its education bills with such grants, and in Baltimore City the figure was 59 percent.
Despite the larger federal and state contributions to the poorer districts, per pupil expenditures still vary in the state's 23 jurisdictions. Montgomery County spent $1,887 on each pupils last year. While Garrett County spent $1,037 per pupil.
"In essence, the Maryland public school finance system permits and encourages local control of the public schools while resulting in substantial equality in per pupil expenditures," Burch said.
"It is our belief that the system is not subject to successful attack under the federal constitution."