February 9, 2011

Changing how students are counted for funding gets chilly reception

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

A bill that would change the way public school funding is calculated, looking at a school district’s average attendance figures instead of a one-time enrollment snapshot, was shot down by members of the House Ways and Means Committee as soon as Del. Anthony O’Donnell finished presenting it.

House Minority Leader Tony O'Donnell

O’Donnell, a Calvert County Republican and House Minority Leader, said that the bill is one of his party’s responses to the $1.6 billion budget gap projected by state analysts. It would divvy up school funding based on average attendance at school districts, which he said is fair and equitable. It also would save the state about $177 million a year in funding that would be cut from districts.

“I’m just advocating – not for reduction, not to penalize, but for accuracy – the number that drives the state’s largest portion of the budget,” O’Donnell said. “This is about how we determine how many students are in the seats, in the classrooms, and that we are funding.”

But many Democrats, who have seen variations of this bill coming before them for years, were quick to put it down. Del. Carolyn Howard, D-Prince George’s County, said that this bill has been brought up for 10 to 15 years. It keeps getting defeated because it would disproportionally impact school districts with more dropouts and more troubled students – districts that have more minorities, students in poverty, and need all the funding they can get, Howard said.

According to the fiscal and policy note prepared by Legislative Services, under this formula Baltimore City Schools would lose $61.3 million. Prince George’s County Schools would lose $34.3 million.

“I do respect you, but I hope this ugly head will not be raised again,” Howard told O’Donnell.

O’Donnell said that perhaps this bill would help school districts crack down on dropouts and truancy, since they would be financially punished otherwise. Other delegates responded that the issue wasn’t quite so simple, and required more effort from the entire community to reach solutions.

Not all delegates were so opposed to O’Donnell’s proposal. Many said that getting an accurate count of the number of students who are actually attending school is not a bad idea.

“The concept makes a lot of sense,” said Del. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County.