ANNAPOLIS -- For most of the 20th century, Maryland has been trying to find a way to distribute the state's wealth so that children, regardless of where they live, would have a chance at an equal education.

Studies have been commissioned, lawsuits filed, task forces convened and state funding formulas devised.

With the start in 1987 of APEX, short for Action Plan for Education Excellence, the state laid out an ambitious five-year plan intended to balance the scales. Little state money, proportionately, would go to wealthy jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, and healthy doses would be funneled to poorer areas such as Baltimore.

Nevertheless, the gap between per-pupil spending in the poorest county and the wealthiest has widened, and pressure is building in the state to fashion more aggressive and innovative solutions.

Today, Maryland leaders are anxiously watching the successful legal challenges to school spending plans in New Jersey and other states. Many say the General Assembly must act next year or face the possibility of even more painful choices later.

To DeWayne Whittington, superintendent of schools for Somerset County on the lower Eastern Shore, the current disparities are anything but abstract. They translate into deficient art and music programs, an absence of elementary school counselors and inadequate pay for teachers.

"One of our best teachers, who's been here 16 years, is leaving because she can drive 15 minutes and make $10,000 more," Whittington said. The teacher can get an instant pay raise by transferring to neighboring Worcester County, a wealthier area by virtue of the tax revenue reaped from the resort business in Ocean City.

"You cry," Whittington said. "It's depressing when other kids have opportunities" that Somerset cannot afford.

The quality of education offered to the 670,000 students in Maryland public schools, as measured in state and local dollars devoted to school operations, remains largely a matter of geography. In the past school year, $6,629 was spent for each pupil in Montgomery County, compared with $5,160 in Prince George's, $4,209 in Baltimore and $4,049 in Caroline County. Proportionately more state aid goes to poorer jurisdictions, but the wealthy school systems more than make up the difference with local money.

"Money isn't the solution to all the problems in education," said Joseph L. Schilling, Maryland school superintendent. "But you're in the neighborhood of $60,000 difference per classroom. That buys a lot of textbooks and equipment."

Some critics note that state priorities make it difficult to bring all spending on par. Only half the nearly $1.4 billion in state aid to education is linked to the wealth of a school district.

Any effort to channel more state aid to the poorest areas -- Baltimore and rural counties of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore -- quickly collides with political reality. Constituents in the growing and prosperous Washington suburbs -- especially in Montgomery County -- already believe that they are shortchanged by the state and are pressuring their legislators not to support programs that would increase their subsidies to poorer jurisdictions.

In 1979, Baltimore and four of Maryland's poorer counties sued the state to further narrow disparities in school spending. Four years later, the Court of Appeals sided with the state. But new rumblings of a lawsuit are emanating from many sources, including the Metropolitan Education Coalition, a three-year-old organization based in Baltimore that calls "adequate and equitable funding" its top priority.

Arthur Boyd, executive director, said the state needs to address the funding formula head-on. "You have a situation where the jurisdictions that have the greatest need -- urban and rural -- those are the very jurisdictions that have the least means," Boyd said.

While Boyd said a lawsuit could come at any time, he would prefer a political solution as a quicker and better way to confront funding inequities.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said the General Assembly, which has been reluctant to tinker with the formula, will be in a position to confront the problem next year after a special state commission headed by Montgomery County lawyer Robert Linowes delivers its analysis of the state tax structure.

Judy Sachwald, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's education aide, said Schaefer is committed to "help populations that need extra help." The question, she said, is: "Are the people going to pay the taxes to make the resources available?"

Several education specialists and lawmakers said they see a partial solution in recent innovations to try to link state aid to student performance or to target state spending to the poorest school districts. If lawmakers are reassured that money is being spent wisely in poor areas, they said, they will be more receptive.