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Baltimore Education Coalition fights planned cuts to education budget

Above: Students at City Springs Elementary, a charter school in Baltimore City, showing off their smiles during class.

Looming state budget cuts directed at Baltimore city’s school are facing strong resistance from the  Baltimore Education Coalition, a group of non-profits, churches and schools planning a major rally in Annapolis on February 28th.

The group’s main message is that, despite the way Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget was initially framed, it does represent a significant slashing of the city’s school budget.

O’Malley, who needs to close a $1.6 billion budget gap, has said that his spending plan for the next fiscal year keeps state support for public schools at the same level as this year. But since there are more than 3,600 new students in public schools, the per-pupil spending ratio would, in effect, drop below 2008 levels.

Under the governor’s proposal, $5.7 billion would be allocated for K-12 public education, about $94 million less than required under the state’s education spending plan.

“The number one challenge is educating people about what is actually happening in this budget,” said Andrew Foster Connors, pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church and clergy co-chair of BUILD.

That seriousness of the threat, Foster Connors and other organizers say, is reflected in the record-breaking turnout they expect – more than 1,000 people. Organizers have been meeting in small groups across the city for weeks to rally the troops.

The anguish stems largely from the fact that changes are being proposed to the funding mechanism known as the Thornton formula, which was designed to channel more per-pupil funding to poorer school districts like Baltimore.

The changes would cap the inflation indicator of the Thornton formula down from 5% to 1%, which the Baltimore Education Coalition sees as rewriting the formula, with most of the benefit being redirected to wealthier school districts.

Under the rewritten formula, aid would be cut to Baltimore schools by $15 million and to Prince George’s County schools by $21 million, while Montgomery and Baltimore counties would see their funding increase because of  higher student enrollment, declining income wealth, or a combination of the two.

While the planned cuts affect districts across Maryland, Foster Connors is particularly concerned about the impact on Baltimore City, whose recent improvements under the leadership of CEO Andres Alonso have made national news.

“Alonso’s already looking at $30 million in additional revenue needed just to keep everything at the status quo,” explained Foster Connors. “You add a $15 million cut to that, and you’re talking $45 million effective cuts to kids in city schools.”

A $15 million dollar reduction in instructional budgets could mean losing one teacher per small school, and up to three teachers per larger high school, explained Foster Connors. Along with an increase in class size in some schools, the cuts would also result in a loss of services and academic offerings, Alonso has said.

With state revenues drained by the recession and stimulus funds for the next budget cycle dried up as well, state officials are hard pressed to maintain education funding. But Foster Connors argues that the solution, if necessary, should be to raise revenue.

“Our position is that nobody likes taxes, but we can stomach taxes if we have to,” he said. “What we can’t stomach is breaking the promise to our kids.”

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