IN A SUIT CHALLENGING Maryland's system of financing schools, the city of Baltimore and three of Maryland's poorest counties point up the growing disparities between per-pupil spending in the state's rich and poor districts. It is a longstanding problem in many states: Because local property taxes are the main source of financing for the school systems, the poorer districts naturally have less money to spend. The plaintiffs contend that such a system, under which the best public education goes to those in the wealthiest areas, violates the state's constitutional requirements of equal protection and a "thorough and efficient system of free public schools" throughout the state. Though the fiscal disparities are indeed disturbing, the dollar differences may appear more unfair than they actually are. Still, it is clear that adjustments are needed -- adjustments that should come not from the courts, but from the General Assembly and the governor.
While it is true that wealthier districts raise and spend more dollars per pupil, for example, these numbers do not reflect costs of living in different areas of the state; it costs more to attract and keep teachers, administrators, custodians and other employees in Montgomery or Prince George's than on the Eastern Shore. One must look, too, at other differences in expenses, such as the fact that Montgomery County may be spending disproportionately more dollars on handicapped children than do other school systems. Also, as any parent or student probably knows, it does not automatically follow that the best teachers in a system are those who make the highest salaries.
The value of this suit is that it should put further pressure on the legislature to review and adjust the financial system to bring relief to poor, strapped districts and to commit more state aid directly to schools that are failing, or, as in Baltimore City, that have special compensatory education costs. These are problems that a commission has been studying in Maryland; it has proposed a five-year plan, now before the legislature in Annapolis, to narrow the disparities in per-pupil costs. In addition, Gov. Harry R. Hughes has been pointing up these inequities for years and has voiced strong support for a better financing system. The need for relief in the poorer counties is clear -- and rather than wait for a court order directing that relief, the legislature should act responsibly this year.