Q & A: The Thornton Plan and Prince George's County
In 2002, the Maryland General Assembly adopted the Bridge
to Excellence in Public Schools Act, which promised to increase significantly
the amount of money the state spends each year on public education from
pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The law is designed to fulfill the
requirement in the Maryland
State Constitution that the General Assembly "shall by Law establish
throughout the state a thorough and efficient system of Free Public Schools;
and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance."
The Bridge to Excellence Act was based on the report and recommendations
of the Commission
on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, chaired by Dr. Alvin
Thornton, a former chair of the Prince George's County Board of Education.
Using the concept of standards-based school financing, the commission
called for the state to set academic performance standards for students,
ensure that schools have sufficient resources to achieve them, and hold
schools and school systems accountable when they fail to meet the standards.
Thus, the program adopted by the General Assembly is commonly known as
the Thornton plan. (A summary
of the act, prepared by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education,
is available in PDF format.)
The following document answers questions frequently asked about the Bridge
to Excellence in Public Schools Act and its impact on Prince George's
By how much does the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act increase
state aid to public education?
The act establishes a higher amount of spending per pupil for all students
in the state, to be phased in through fiscal year 2008. As a result, state
aid to local school systems rose by $80.5 million in fiscal 2003 and $147.8
million this year, and is scheduled to increase by $364.3 million is fiscal
2005, $639.2 million in fiscal 2006, $948.0 million in fiscal 2007, and
$1.3057 billion in fiscal 2008.
How much additional money would the Prince George's County
Public Schools receive?
Over the six-year phase-in period, Prince George's would receive an additional
$956.6 million in state education aid. The school system received an extra
$22.5 million in fiscal 2003 and $36.9 million this year. Increases in
future years would be $108.5 million in fiscal 2005, $179.6 million in
fiscal 2006, $258.7 million in fiscal 2007, and $350.4 million in fiscal
2008. On a per-pupil basis, state aid to Prince George's County would
more than double, from $3,921 in fiscal 2002 to $7,998 in fiscal 2008.
At the end of this phase-in period, the county would receive more than
20 percent of all state education aid.
Where does the money come from?
Funding for the fiscal 2003 increase was provided, in part, by increasing
the tobacco tax rate for cigarettes from 66 cents to $1 per pack. Revenues
from the tax went into a special fund, with $80.5 million designated for
the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act. Beyond fiscal 2003, the
act does not specify a source of funding for the increases. The fiscal
2004 increase was included in the governor's proposed budget and paid
out of the state's general fund. However, the General Assembly cut $30
million from the increase by eliminating the Teacher Salary Challenge
Program, rather than phasing it out over two years, as provided in the
Bridge to Excellence Act.
What is the "trigger" mechanism in the Bridge to Excellence
The act required the General Assembly to affirm by Joint Resolution, by
the fiftieth day of the 2004 legislative session (March 3), that the aid
amount calculated for fiscal 2005 is within the state's fiscal resources.
Absent such a resolution, state education aid for each school system would
increase by only 5 percent from fiscal 2004 to 2005 and by 5 percent to
6 percent annually from fiscal 2006 to 2008. Under this default provision,
state aid would have been reduced by almost $187 million in fiscal 2005,
$385 million in fiscal 2006, $597 million in fiscal 2007, and $872 million
in fiscal 2008. The Prince George's County Public Schools would have lost
$75 million in fiscal 2005 alone; total state aid would have been cut
from $726.6 million to $651.6 million.
However, because this requirement in effect established a "legislative
veto," the Maryland attorney general's office questioned its constitutionality.
To clear up this problem, and to guarantee full funding of the Thornton
plan, the General Assembly approved House
Bill 345, which repealed the trigger provision. Following final passage
by the Senate on February 27, less than a week before the fiftieth day
of the session, the bill was sent to Governor Ehrlich, who allowed it
to become law without his signature on March 4. While repeal of the trigger
ensures funding of most provisions of the Bridge to Excellence Act, it
excludes money for the geographic cost-of-education index (see below),
as well as several categorical programs not included in the Thornton plan.
What is the "geographic cost-of-education index"
The Bridge to Excellence Act provides supplemental funding to counties
with a high cost of living and large numbers of students who face educational
challenges (e.g., low-income students and non-English speakers). The law
used a temporary formula to determine how these funds would be distributed
in the first two years and required the state to hire a consultant to
devise a new index to go into effect on July 1, 2004, for the 2005 fiscal
year. Work on the GCEI was completed in December 2003. However, in October,
an assistant state attorney general issued a memorandum saying that because
the law did not contain specific dollar figures for the GCEI for future
years, the governor is not required to include this money in his budget.
Although legislation has been introduced to make this funding mandatory,
Governor Ehrlich's fiscal 2005 budget proposal, submitted to the General
Assembly in January, did not provide any money for the GCEI, which would
come to $45 million next year.
How does this omission affect Prince George's County?
Unless Governor Ehrlich submits a supplemental budget request to the General
Assembly that includes money for the GCEI, Prince George's stands to lose
$16-19 million in fiscal 2005.
What must the Prince George's school system do in exchange
for the additional funds?
Under the Bridge to Excellence Act, every local school system must develop
a five-year comprehensive master plan that includes goals and strategies
to promote academic excellence among all students and to eliminate performance
gaps based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic circumstances, disability,
and native language. The plan must include goals that are aligned with
state standards, implementation strategies, methods for measuring progress
toward meeting the goals, and timelines for implementing the strategies.
If any segment of the student population in a school system fails to demonstrate
progress toward meeting performance standards, the State Superintendent
of Schools must review the system's plan and may require the system to
make changes to it. School systems were required to submit their master
plans to the Maryland State Department of Education by October 1, 2003.
Because of separate legislation restructuring the county Board of Education,
the Prince George's County school system had to submit an initial plan
by September 30, 2002, and an update by October 1, 2003. (The final plan,
entitled the Quality
Schools Program Strategic Plan, is available on the school system's
What does the law require of county governments?
The additional money school systems get under the Bridge to Excellence
Act is intended to raise the state's share of total education funding;
it does not relieve counties of their obligations. Indeed, the law prohibits
counties from cutting their own spending on education as the state share
grows. Counties must continue to comply with Maintenance of Effort (MOE)
minimum funding levels; these are based on a wealth-adjusted per pupil
funding formula that allocates relatively more state assistance to jurisdictions
with lower local income and property tax bases. In addition, the act maintains
the previously existing requirement that counties levy sufficient taxes
to provide the local share of education funding defined by state law.
Finally, counties may not artificially satisfy MOE funding levels by moving
programs from their operating budget to the school system budget. To project
total education funding in 2008, the Thornton Commission assumed that
counties would provide future increases comparable to those they enacted
between 1997 and 2000, which were above the MOE requirements. However,
local funding levels have not kept up with the commission's projections.
If this trend continues, total funding would not meet the adequacy goals
established by the commission for 2008.
In Prince George's County, discretionary funding for the Board of Education
from county general revenues, excluding dedicated energy and transfer
taxes, rose by 10.9 percent over the three-year period from fiscal 1997-98
and fiscal 2000-2001, from $326.3 million to $362.8 million. In the three
years since, the county's contribution (excluding the energy and transfer
taxes and the new telephone tax) has grown by only 5 percent, to $380
million. County funding of the schools for the current 2003-2004 fiscal
year is less than $1 million more than last year.