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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 County.


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 Act?


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" (GCEI)?


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 website, http://www.pgcps.org.)


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.


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