From the Baltimore Sun

Thornton subverted, says study

Less state aid directed toward poorer students

By Andrew A. Green
Sun reporter

February 11, 2007

Maryland has sent a half-billion dollars to local governments over the past four years to help educate students living in poverty, but schools are spending less on programs targeted for those children than they did before the landmark Thornton education law, according to a new study.

More money to help educate poor children was one of the key selling points of the Thornton funding program. But the law also gave local districts flexibility in how they spend the new state aid. The study by Advocates for Children and Youth, a child welfare advocacy group, found that programs designed specifically to help low-income children have been cut.

In the five school districts the group analyzed - Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George's and Washington counties - the money has gone instead to district-wide improvements such as higher teacher salaries that benefit wealthy and poor students alike. Children from low-income families are considered more at risk for poor academic achievement.

The study found that in Baltimore, academic coaches in poorer schools were eliminated, a $7.5 million cut, and funding for summer school has been reduced by $8.2 million. Baltimore County eliminated $2.6 million that had been used to cut class sizes in at-risk schools. Montgomery County cut $3.9 million for a reading initiative. Prince George's eliminated supplemental staff in some troubled schools, a $13 million reduction.

"Everybody agreed that these students needed these services in order to have a fair opportunity to achieve state academic standards," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "The fact that they're not getting these additional services means a fundamental purpose of Thornton is not being fulfilled."

State and local education officials said they had not seen the report or had not had time to analyze its details, but said it severely understates the efforts schools have made to reduce achievement gaps between students who are living in poverty and those who are not.

State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the decision to allocate Thornton money to teacher salaries is perhaps the most important thing school systems can do to help disadvantaged students.

"To have really talented teachers in these classrooms and to be able to do a diagnostic look at the children's progress, I don't think you can say that's immaterial," Grasmick said. "The dollars going into highly qualified teachers is a critical intervention strategy."

Marshall Spatz, budget director for Montgomery County schools, called the report's conclusions "very unfair." He said it doesn't take into account significant investments of local funds the county made before Thornton to help at-risk students, and it appears to penalize the district for technical accounting changes it made after Thornton.

The implication that Montgomery County has cut programs for at-risk students is absurd, he said. "If you simply put more teachers in a school to decrease class size, they don't give you any credit for that," Spatz said.

But some leaders in Annapolis said they want to take a much closer look at how the Thornton dollars are being spent. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the legislature needs to hear more from Grasmick about where the money has gone.

The state needs to review "whether it's had a positive impact on test scores, smaller classrooms, individual attention or whether all that money was just put into the salary structure," Busch said. "I don't want to rush to judgment, but we certainly want some empirical evidence at the end of the day."

Gov. Martin O'Malley's spokesman, Steve Kearney, said the governor "will take a serious look" at the report.

Thornton has become sacrosanct in Maryland politics. Elected officials from both parties hold it out as the most important policy program the state has initiated in years - though some grumble that the legislature was irresponsible to pass it without a funding source.

When fully phased in, Thornton will cause the state to spend $1.3 billion more a year on K-12 education than it would have otherwise. The legislature's decision to enact that program accounts single-handedly for the expected gap between revenues and expenditures often called the "structural deficit," an imbalance over the next few years that could prompt a push for raising taxes, legalizing slot machines, or both.

JoAnne L. Carter, a deputy state superintendent, said the education department has reviewed and approved the local districts' master plans for spending Thornton money. The plans meet the program's goals, she said. "We do see interventions that are targeted to these populations that are intended to improve their reading proficiency, their math proficiency," she said.

The Thornton formula consists of four basic parts. Most of the money was dedicated to increasing the basic level of state education aid. But districts were given extra money based on the number of students who are enrolled in special education or limited English proficiency programs, or who receive free or reduced-price lunches.

That last piece, the portion dedicated to students growing up in poverty, is what the report focuses on. This year, it amounts to $726 million, about $491 million more than Maryland would have spent if the Thornton formula hadn't been enacted.

Most of that increase, $331 million, went to the five districts studied. Baltimore City and Washington County have slightly increased their spending targeted to poor students, but Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have reduced their spending on those services, the report found. Combined, the five districts are spending $15 million less than they were before.

Barbara A. Hoffman, a former state senator who served on the commission that led to the Thornton law, said the report's analysis is premature and off base. The money has been phased in over the past four years, and the last installment is due next year. The fact that districts used the first installments to boost teacher salaries doesn't mean later stages won't be used for the kinds of programs that the advocates want, she said.

Furthermore, giving school districts flexibility in how they spend state aid was one of the key components of Thornton, Hoffman said. The commission's report identified more than 50 separate funding streams the state had established to pay for various specific programs. What Advocates for Children and Youth is suggesting would lead Maryland back to an old and ineffective system, she said.

But some advocates say that in an era of high-stakes testing, much more needs to be done specifically for at-risk children.

Maryland has tests that will likely be graduation requirements for high school students starting with the class of 2009, and in last year's exams, significant gaps remained between the average pass rate and that for low-income children. On the algebra exam, 66.6 percent of students passed, but only 49.3 percent of at-risk children did. Similar gaps existed on the English, government and biology exams.

Ross Wiener of Education Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to reducing student achievement gaps, said a major focus of the Thornton report was figuring out what interventions are needed to help low-income students. But school districts "have not targeted the money for extra support for those students," he said.

"It really requires a critical look at what is happening to all that money," he said.