So this is my question: What is the governor talking about?

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) told the Maryland General Assembly that if the legislators don't agree to allow slot machines into the state, we can pretty much kiss all that Thornton money goodbye.

This is ridiculous.

The Thornton money, as it is known, is funding that the General Assembly agreed to spend on schools last year. It is named after Alvin Thornton, former Prince George's school board chairman and head of the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, which laid out a plan to fund Maryland public schools.

The goal was to bring all students' learning up to state standards. In simplest terms, the panel visited schools where most students met state standards, determined what those schools spent per student and said that that's how much per-pupil spending should be everywhere so all students can meet state standards -- unless they are poor, disabled or don't speak English. In those cases, students need an investment of about twice the regular amount. The commission said the state is responsible for ensuring that every student in Maryland has access to those resources, and it mentioned rights outlined in the Maryland Constitution to underscore that point.

The state constitution states that "the General Assembly, at its First Session after the adoption of this Constitution, shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance."

Strong public schools paid for with enough public funds: It's right there in the state constitution.

Last year, the General Assembly agreed that the Thornton Commission had established a way for schools to be thorough and efficient and codified that with the "Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act." (See it at mlis.state.md.us/2002rs/billfile/SB0856.htm.)

The law requires the governor to put the Thornton money right into his budget. It's not optional.

The law does not say the governor has to put the money into the budget if he feels like it, or if the stock market does well or if the sun shines brightly. The law says the governor must put in the money . Period.

"This is not a discretionary item," said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Van Hollen, whose 8th District includes much of Montgomery and about 30,000 residents in Prince George's County, worked on school funding throughout his eight years in the state Senate before he ran for the House of Representatives.

"It is mandated," he said. "That was the whole idea."

When I told him that the governor had said that if the slots bill didn't pass, there would be no money to fund Thornton, Van Hollen said, "I know he's saying that. That's a misunderstanding of the law. It's not even close. This isn't a question of interpretation. The law is quite clear."

Admittedly, there is what Van Hollen calls a "wrinkle" next year. Although the governor must put the money into his budget, if the General Assembly does not state in a joint resolution that the state can afford Thornton, the funding drops significantly for the next year.

"Technically, the congressman is correct," responded Joseph M. Getty, a former delegate from Carroll County and now the governor's policy director. "The bill is binding. It is a statute. But like any statute, it can be changed by the General Assembly if it goes through the legislative process."

That is, all things in Annapolis are fungible, and the kinds of legal inconveniences that arise with the Thornton money can be fixed with enough goodwill on all sides.

Because of the tight fiscal situation -- a looming deficit of about $1.8 billion -- there might even be enough goodwill in the legislature to make Thornton go away entirely. But Alvin Thornton and others who pushed for the law are not going to go away.

"The people of Maryland, through their elected representatives, have three options," Thornton told me.

"First, to fund the program as adopted by the legislature last year. This is what I expect them to do.

"Second, to realize that no matter what we want for our children, we are not willing to fund it and we simply have to lower our expectations of our children. There is, after all, no constitutional requirement that children be educated to high standards. But I have not heard anybody say they will lower the standards.

"Third, the people say that the current political structure is not capable of acting constitutionally and that the people must rely on the judiciary. It is an option that one would never want to exercise because it is expensive and divisive."

Thornton is being professorial here -- he is, after all, a professor of political science at Howard University -- but his meaning is quite clear. He will take the state to court and, after an expensive and nasty fight, he expects the court system to recognize Maryland's constitutional obligation to fund schools in such a way that all students receive the resources necessary for them to meet state standards.

"The constitution is superior to the current political configuration," Thornton said. Public schools are "the only public service that must be funded by the legislature -- that and the public debt. Everything else comes second, a distant second."

That's why I don't understand what Ehrlich is saying. I think it is wrongheaded to invite the kind of corruption the gambling industry brings into a state. But it is perfectly reasonable to say that unless we get a major new source of income into the state coffers, we won't have money for any new roads, or a health care system, or a Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, or a state police force or all kinds of other things that the state spends money on that are not required by the constitution.

That kind of starkly realistic talk might, in fact, spur some really creative thinking, such as levying a sales tax on services or ending the 10 percent gradual income tax cut that the state is instituting because its coffers were so flush.

Most people can see that the notion of "slots or cops" is ridiculous on its face.

But "slots or schools" is equally ridiculous.

Homeroom appears every other week in Prince George's Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, Prince George's Extra, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397; the e-mail address is homeroom@washpost.com. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.

Maryland law makes it clear that the state must provide adequate money to public schools, said Alvin Thornton, who headed a statewide commission on the issue of school funding.