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Maryland's School-Finance System Ruled Legal

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Acknowledging that Maryland's system of financing public education was "imperfect," the state's highest court last week overturned a two-year-old decision mandating "mathematical equality" in per-pupil spending among school districts.

In a 5-to-1 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that although "there are great disparities in educational opportunities among the state's school districts," the finance system nevertheless complied with the state's constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient" education.

The sole dissenter was Judge Harry A. Cole of Baltimore, who wrote that the court "should be committed to admonishing the legislature that it has not fulfilled its constitutional obligation."

The majority opinion vacated a 1981 decision by Circuit Court Judge David Ross, who held, in a case brought by the Baltimore city school district and three rural county districts, that the state had violated its constitution by failing to equalize per-pupil spending.

"Each pupil is entitled to a fair share," which "can be accomplished only by dividing the money [from state and local sources] equally on an accurate per-pupil basis across the state," the lower court said. The decision was interpreted to mean that the state would be required either to bring all school systems' spending up to the level of the state's wealthiest county, or to "cap" the amount of funds school districts would be permitted to spend on education.

Decision Appealed

That decision was appealed by the state and the Montgomery County Public Schools--a district located in a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., that maintains the highest level of per-pupil spending in the state, $3,771 last year. Baltimore city, which was joined in the suit by Somerset, Caroline, and St. Mary's counties, spent $2,564. The state average last year was $2,888.

Montgomery County intervened in the case because its officials were ''frightened" that Judge Ross's ruling could be interpreted as limiting the amount of funds the county could spend for education, according to Kenneth K. Muir, a spokesman for the school system.

In ruling in the state's favor, the court did not take issue with the poorer districts' contention that Maryland's financing system--even though it is based on a weighted "equalization" formula--was unfair. Problems in the system, the decision said, are "widely acknowledged."

Rather, the court based its opinion on a legal analysis, finding that the present financing system "satisfies" the "thorough and efficient" clause. The court also declined to find the state's system in violation of the "equal protection" clause of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, because education is not considered a "fundamental right" under the state constitution.

The court suggested that demands for reform of the system "are more properly addressed to the legislature for its consideration."

State Funds Limited

Several of those involved in the case speculated about what the next move would be. Most said that changing the financing formula would not be sufficient to increase equity among districts, because state funds are limited. The state last year provided $1,349 for each Baltimore pupil, while spending only $814 on each pupil in Montgomery County.

Thus, providing substantial additional revenue for the city and rural students would only be possible if the legislature appropriated additional education funds, those interviewed said.

In doing so, the state "would have to pay a greater percentage of education costs than we currently do," said David W. Hornbeck, the state superintendent of schools. "Currently, we spend 40 to 43 percent, in contrast to the national average, which hovers around 50 percent," he said.

Mr. Hornbeck, whose name appears as the principal defendant in the case, actually testified as one of the principal witnesses for the plaintiffs during the four-month trial last year.

"The truth as I know it was supportive of the plaintiff's position,'' he said. "There is a marked difference in programs, materials, class sizes, and other factors among poor and wealthier school systems. It is a gross inequality."

Elliott C. Lichtman, who represented Baltimore and the other counties, said the decision was not only "sad" for his clients, but that it represented "a step backward" in the national school-finance-reform "movement."

Changes Initiated

Courts in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming found their state education systems unconstitutional and initiated changes. But financing systems have been upheld in Colorado, Georgia, New York, and Ohio, he said.

The decision may actually have a positive effect on the prospects for additional state funds for education, said Ellen M. Heller, a lawyer in the education-affairs division of the state attorney general's office.

"The opinion will make it easier for Baltimore and the rural counties to receive more money because [legislators from] the more affluent counties will no longer be fearful of a court decision forcing them to act," she said.

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