BALTIMORE, AUG. 9 -- The Maryland State Board of Education embraced a set of proposals today designed to improve elementary and secondary schools, including requiring all children to go to kindergarten and prohibiting them from dropping out before they are 18.
The board agreed to ask the governor and General Assembly for $175 million to begin implementing the initiatives, igniting what board members predicted would be a major debate over the next several months on the necessity of school revisions versus the cost. The biggest chunk of the money would be spent on schools in the poorer parts of the state, especially Baltimore.
The proposals include doubling the number of school computers, providing pre-kindergarten classes for economically disadvantaged children and creating grants for school systems to tinker with ways to keep students from dropping out, involve parents and change how schools are run.
The board's decision means that it has accepted most of an ambitious 15-point proposal issued four months ago by Joseph L. Shilling, Maryland's state school superintendent. Shilling and the board have been under pressure from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has been trying for two years to mobilize the state's education bureaucracy.
The board balked today at Shilling's most expensive and controversial idea: adding 20 days to the state's 180-day school year. The state Education Department had estimated it would cost $187 million next year to begin phasing in the extension, and many educators around the state have questioned whether the additional days would be the most effective way to improve education.
The board's decision on the longer school year failed by a single vote with several members absent, and supporters said they plan to revive the question at the board's next meeting at the end of the month.
"Any issue is live to the extent anyone wants to talk about them," board Chairman Robert C. Embry said after the meeting.
For now, the board agreed to a more modest, $5 million proposal to subsidize summer school for 25,000 students statewide who need academic help.
In adopting Shilling's ideas, the board in essence agreed to ask the General Assembly next winter how much it likes the initiatives and how much it is willing to spend on them.
Only two of the ideas approved today -- mandatory kindergarten and raising the compulsory attendance age to 18 -- would require changes in state law.
Currently, 5 percent of the state's children do not attend kindergarten, and students are permitted to leave school after they turn 16.
The board decided today to seek both legislative changes during the 1991 legislative session, but any changes would not take effect until 1993.
Although the other initiatives would not require changes in law, few could take effect without state money.
After today's meeting, Shilling was beaming over the quick acceptance of his plan by a board that traditionally has been slow and deliberative when considering change.
"If we are successful with the legislature, we will have succeeded in completely turning the direction of education in the State of Maryland around," Shilling said.
But he acknowledged that he and the state board face a difficult task in trying to secure the necessary money at a time when Schaefer has told agencies not to expect to increase their budgets.
"The governor's dilemma and the legislature's dilemma is, how do we fund this," Shilling said. He added that he and Embry met with Schaefer Monday to discuss the proposals, but that their conversation had not focused on finances.
If the legislature does supply the money, it will simultaneously place a financial burden on Maryland's 24 school systems, since state aid covers only part of their expenses. The burden would be especially heavy in relatively affluent places, such as Montgomery County, where state subsidies are comparatively low.
As part of the initiatives, Shilling and the board are trying to channel an additional $100 million to the state's poorest school systems.
Three-fourths of that amount would go to Baltimore, and the rest would be spread among seven counties in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
State Board of Education Initiatives:
Pre-kindergarten. Subsidize pre-kindergarten classes for disadvantaged children at an additional 111 sites around the state -- $6.6 million.
Mandatory kindergarten. Require all 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten. Currently, all schools must offer kindergarten, but children do not have to attend. Five percent of the state's school-age children, most of them disadvantaged, do not attend -- $4.2 million.
Compulsory attendance. Make attendance mandatory to age 18. Now, students may drop out when they reach 16. The board decided to seek a change in state law next year, but to phase in the change over two years, starting with a compulsory attendance age of 17 in fiscal year 1993. No cost for fiscal 1992. -- $33 million when fully phased in.
Challenge grants. Create a competitive grant program for 45 elementary schools to improve the education of poor children -- $32 million.
Computers. Double the number of school computers statewide to provide one computer for every 10 students. Would be phased in over four years -- $11.3 million in first year.
Math and Science. Create new programs and train teachers to improve students' knowledge of math, science and technology and to increase the number of state residents entering careers in those fields -- $1.4 million.
Graduation requirements. Start state study of proposal to increase high school graduation criteria, so that all high school students would take courses required for admission to the University of Maryland, unless they are in a vocational program -- $60,000.
Equitable funding. Provide an extra $100 million annually to the state's poorest school systems. Three-fourths of the money would go to Baltimore, the rest would be spread among Allegany, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Garrett, Somerset and Wicomico counties.
SOURCE: Maryland State Department of Education