From 1896 through 1954, this nation endured the flawed “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that would eventually be overturned by the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Despite the ruling to go forward with desegregation a half century ago, in 2016, schools are more segregated, today, than at any time since the ruling. De facto segregation no longer has the force of law, but the forces of economic oppression are still at work.
Fast forward to the 1980s, Marylanders began to notice inequitable education funding as a growing social concern. In an effort to cope with demographic achievement gaps and the wide economic disparities between certain geographic regions, a policy was adopted that any jurisdiction’s funding would be considered “equitable” as long as it fell above 80 percent of the wealthiest jurisdiction’s funding level.
With all “deliberate” speed, Maryland had required 30 years to arrive at a policy of unequal is equitable: a decision of near-Orwellian proportions.
Then, in 1984, the first iteration of the highly-touted maintenance-of-effort law attempted, at least, to ensure a constant level of funding by requiring that local education providers annually adjust their local education spending upward to keep pace with inflation. Per-pupil spending was still required only to remain above 80 percent of the highest rate in the state.
Incomprehensibly, the law was amended a few years ago, to a less rigorous formula that does not include compliance with the unfunded mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] or funding for summer school which, together, constitutes a bit less than half of all education spending.
The result? Lower staffing ratios, larger class sizes and fewer resources for the fully two-thirds of our students who live their lives at the economic margins and arguably demonstrate the most profound need of such advantages. Mere maintenance of inadequate effort will always remain inadequate.
The Bridge to Excellence Act, inspired by the much celebrated work of the Thornton Commission, once again called into question the apparent disparities between well-funded and poorly funded jurisdictions, and the all-too-apparent discrepancies between the educational opportunities offered in affluent and socio-economically challenged communities.
The legislation mandated unprecedented new levels of contribution from the state legislature, but real “equity” in public education will remain a distant dream as long as we persist in furnishing only a fraction of what children need.
[The original of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on February 13, 2014. It has been slightly revised for the purpose of rendering more current.]