High Court in Md. Hears Arguments In Finance Case

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Annapolis, Md--A lower-court ruling calling for "mathematical equality" among school districts in per-pupil spending was vigorously attacked last week in arguments before Maryland's highest court.

"Does the [state] constitution really say the state has to give everybody enough money to spend as much as Montgomery County? That's a staggeringly perverse view of equal protection," argued Shale D. Stiller, a lawyer for Montgomery County, a wealthy Washington suburb that joined the state in defending the suit brought by the city of Baltimore and three poor rural counties.

Montgomery County spent $3,392 per pupil last year, by far the highest figure in the state. Baltimore spent $2,332; the lowest-spending school system, Carroll County, spent $2,079.

"This is not just a money case," Elliott C. Lichtman, lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the Maryland Court of Appeals. "The impact of these dollar differences is enormous."

Referring to an article of the state constitution requiring a "thorough and efficient system of free public schools," Mr. Lichtman argued, "When one district has a half-price education, and another district has a full-price education, that is not a 'thorough and efficient system."'

'Mathematical Equality'

In their principal brief in the case, the state and Montgomery County stressed that in no other state have the courts called for "mathematical equality." And, they said, the issue in the case "is not whether it is desirable or advisable as a matter of social policy or political theory for every subdivision to spend the same mathematically precise amount of money on each child's education. The issue, instead, is whether anything in the constitution requires that the school systems in each of the 24 subdivisions spend the same amount."

What the constitution requires, they said, is not equality, but adequacy. "Plaintiffs did not contend, and certainly cannot prove, that any child in Maryland is denied an adequate education," George A. Nilson, deputy attorney general, told the court.

In their arguments, the plaintiffs did not stick to the "mathematical-equality" formula ordered last May by the trial judge, David Ross. Their principal brief presented four other methods of finance reform and said the choice should be up to the state legislature.

The defendants "attempt to prevent reform not because the present system is constitutional, but because a remedy approved by Judge Ross is controversial," the plaintiffs charged in their brief.

Currently, Maryland provides $800 million per year in aid to public schools. Half of that comes through an "equalization" formula which gives more to poor school systems than to wealthy ones.

However, the plaintiffs argued that state aid--an average of $502 per pupil statewide last year--is so far below the actual cost of education that it still leaves the tax-poor systems at a disadvantage.

State aid accounts for about 40 percent of the average Maryland district's annual budget, well below the national average of about 48 percent. Local revenue comes from both property taxes and local surcharges on the state income tax.

The Court of Appeals has not indicated when it will issue a ruling in the case, which is called Somerset v. Hornbeck.

Vol. 01, Issue 33

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