Thornton Commission Recommendations Criticized

November 20, 2001
[The following is the text of testimony presented last night (Monday, November 19) on behalf of the Montgomery County Board of Education, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, and the County Council before the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence (Thornton Commission). The testimony was presented by Nancy J. King, president of the Board of Education.]

Summary: The testimony addresses recent recommendations of the commission, which would severely restrict state aid to Montgomery County for limited English proficient students, special education, student transportation, and teacher salaries. The commission's plan, for example, would provide Montgomery County with only $2 million of the $130 million recommended statewide for the first year and only $70 million of the $1.1 billion in additional state aid statewide in Fiscal Year 2007.

Testimony on behalf of the Montgomery County Board of Education,
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, and the County Council before
Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence

Good evening, Dr. Thornton and members of the Commission. I am Nancy King, President of the Montgomery County Board of Education. I am here tonight representing the Board of Education, County Executive Douglas Duncan, and the Montgomery County Council. I appreciate this opportunity once again, to present our views on the work, findings, and recommendations of the Commission. We are greatly appreciative of the time that has been committed by both the members and staff of the Commission.

As we have stated before, Montgomery County shares the rest of the State’s desire for equity and excellence in education. In fact, no single issue elicits as much interest and concern. A quality public school system is a linchpin of our growing economy and standard of living. When you speak to our citizens and our business community, you regularly hear that the school system played a large part in the decision to either come or stay in our county.

In recent years, the elected leadership of Montgomery County the County Executive, the County Council, the Board of Education, and our General Assembly delegation have worked hard to provide increased resources for our schools. During the past two years alone, the County has supported our school board’s commitment to meeting State education standards by raising the bar and closing the achievement gap for all students. The County has provided additional resources to reduce class size, expand full-day kindergarten, improve reading and math instruction, and increase special education services. During this period, the level of support from local taxpayers has remained at about 80 percent of our budget.

Now we join you in turning to the State to provide additional resources to assist local jurisdictions like ours in meeting State standards for academic achievement. We applaud your bold action in recommending a plan of increases in State education aid and are supportive of some of the components of your plan. However, we cannot help but be disappointed in how the plan fares for the students and residents of Montgomery County who will stand to gain only $2 million of the $130 million envisioned during the first year of the phase-in, and only $70 million of the $1.1 billion additional aid being proposed when the plan is fully implemented in FY 2007. This plan ignores the following facts about our County:

* Montgomery County is the largest school district in Maryland (at 136,832), one of the fastest growing school systems in the country (12th in size nationwide), and is expected to reach an enrollment of over 140,000 shortly.

* Since 1983, nearly all of the growth in enrollment has been among non-white students. Minorities now comprise a majority of the student enrollment for the first time in our school system’s history. This year 47.4 percent of the student population is white, 21.2 percent African American, 17.2 percent Hispanic, and 13.9 percent Asian American.

* Participation in the FARM program has increased from 12 percent to nearly 22 percent in the same time period and the total number of students eligible for FARMs (29,000) exceeds the total enrollment of 16 Maryland school systems.

* During the past 3 years, ESOL enrollment has increased by nearly 2,000 students (22%) the largest increase ever in our County; now we enroll nearly half of the ESOL students in Maryland and spend $2,400 more per student than the average per pupil cost.

* Special education enrollment in Montgomery County has increased by almost 50 percent since FY 1990 while State aid has remained stagnant. While overall enrollment in the county is rising about three percent, the number of special education students has increased annually by 4.5 percent. In addition, the number of students requiring more intensive and costly special education programs is rapidly increasing. Because of the unique medical facilities in our county, many military families seek to be stationed in this area. Yet our taxpayers must shoulder this burden almost entirely.

Although we can support some of the recommendations outlined in the draft report, we are deeply concerned that many of the conclusions and recommendations mask the real needs of our County; make assumptions about adequacy that are not valid (for example, the consultant’s study assumed adequate facilities, technology, and teacher salaries); and predict local funding levels that may not be realistic. To summarize:

* We are pleased that the Commission recognizes the inadequacy of the foundation amount in the existing wealth equalized basic current expense formula. However, this Commission must be mindful of the fact that there are some programs that need to be targeted to particular local needs, including the program for students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), and should remain as categorical programs with funding based on enrollment. Collapsing categorical programs, such as for LEP, special education, and low-income students, into wealth-based formulas, will not further the goal of closing achievement gaps. If the State is going to make a difference in the lives of these children, money must be targeted to these special populations, regardless of where the children reside.

* The Commission’s draft report makes several significant alterations to the State’s support of special education services. The County has strongly advocated since the Commission’s first public hearing that the current special education funding system was both out-dated and woefully inadequate. Unfortunately, while the Commission is considering a proposal to use current enrollment data, its funding recommendations are too little to assist Montgomery County’s growing need for support for special education. In a manner consistent with the federal approach to distributing funding for special education services, the Commission should recommend a State formula that is a hybrid of per pupil grants and wealth-based assistance. The Federal and State governments both mandate special education services. It is only fair that both should participate in a financial manner that is significant for every student and for every jurisdiction.

* We are pleased that the Commission recognizes in its recommendations that the teacher retirement program should be maintained as a State funded categorical program, but are disappointed that the State contributions to teacher salaries, as legislated by the Governor’s Teacher Salary Challenge Program, are folded into the funding formula. Because the model presented by the Commission’s consultants incorrectly assumes that teacher salaries are adequate, it is even more important that this program stays outside of the basic funding formula. A move to eliminate direct funding of the Salary Challenge will only reduce the flexibility the Commission has sought to provide. Both of these programs should be categorical to help ensure that we can attract and retain the teachers that will be needed across the State over the next decade.

* Although the draft report recommends that the State should increase funding for student transportation, there is no recommendation for increasing State transportation funding except in the area of transportation for students with disabilities. This is done even though the report cites the fact that total expenditures for transportation has increased by 180 percent since 1980 while State aid has increased by only 35 percent over the same time. The need for additional transportation funding was expressed by most jurisdictions during public hearings held earlier this year and last year. The Commission must address this issue in its final report.

* The draft report does not include a proposal for using more current data to calculate State aid. We have indicated our concerns in previous testimony about this issue, particularly as it relates to the LEP program. State funding of this program is based upon a student count as of May of the second preceding school year, making the data used out of step with current needs. We would urge the Commission to approve a recommendation to make the dates for calculating State aid for all programs, including LEP and special education, as current as possible, using no more than year-old data. In addition, the Commission should consider some alteration to the method by which full-time enrollment is calculated. The one-day census method has several shortcomings. Most notably is its inability to address the needs of school systems with growing enrollments. The Commission should consider a change in the enrollment determination to include an expected growth factor. Local governments must shoulder the entire costs for new students in their first year. There must be a way to factor enrollment growth into a formula.

* We continue to support the interim recommendations of the Commission that focused on special education, transportation of students with disabilities, and programmatic enhancements in the areas of academic intervention, early education initiatives, and full-day kindergarten. These recommendations targeted the most critical needs identified in the previous round of public hearings. We are pleased that the draft final report includes some of these components, including the special education transportation grant increase and the change to counting each kindergarten student as a full-time equivalent.

Thank you again for the opportunity to express our views on the Commission’s Draft Final Report. We hope you will consider our comments and suggestions as you prepare the final report before the end of the year. As legislation that embodies the report is drafted for the 2002 session of the General Assembly, we hope to work with you to ensure that it will recognize the needs of all jurisdictions in Maryland, including the unique needs of our County, in terms of our disproportionate and growing share of LEP students, children with intensive special education needs, and increasing student enrollment. As the State’s pie is divided, elected officials must ensure that all children with needs have a chance to taste success, irrespective of where they reside, without pitting one jurisdiction against another.

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