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Funding. It is all about the funding--and not necessarily for NCLB--but for education.
Thornton Plan Wins Backing
House Vote May Put Burden on Ehrlich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2004; Page B05

The Maryland House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a measure that would protect funding for a popular public schools initiative, overruling Republicans who argued that Democrats were short-circuiting debate over whether the state can afford the $1.3 billion education program .

The measure, which is scheduled for a final vote today in the House, would make an arcane technical correction to the schools plan, which seeks to eliminate disparities between rich and poor school districts.

But the measure's political implications are, to use one Republican lawmaker's word, explosive.

If the measure does not pass, the Democrats who control the General Assembly will be required to decide early next month whether the state can continue to increase aid to school districts by hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

If the measure passes, Democratic leaders will shift that burden onto Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. , who will be forced to decide whether to scale back the expensive education plan, which is known as the Thornton initiative. If Ehrlich chooses not to cut the initiative, he then will have to decide whether to raise taxes or slash funds for other services.

For months, Ehrlich has argued that Democratic lawmakers should find a way to pay for the schools plan, particularly since House leaders last year rejected Ehrlich's proposal to pay for the initiative by legalizing slot machine gambling.

The attempt to repeal the March vote represents an effort by lawmakers to "shirk their fiscal responsibility," Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.

With Ehrlich's support, House Republicans launched a spirited counterattack against efforts to repeal the law that requires the March vote, known in State House parlance as the "trigger." House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) called the measure a cynical ploy aimed at forcing Ehrlich either to make painful spending cuts or to break his promise and fully fund the education program through his budget.

"They want to attempt to embarrass the governor and make this a debate about whether you support education funding. And it's not. It's about fiscal responsibility," O'Donnell said after the two-hour debate.

Democrats argued that they want to repeal the trigger only to avoid a potential lawsuit. The state's attorney general has issued an opinion stating that the trigger may be unconstitutional.

"We don't want a cloud" over the education funding plan, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) said. "This piece we can deal with today. Get it off the table. And let's go forward and work jointly together on a funding mechanism and not cloud it with a trigger amendment that is unconstitutional."

The fight over the trigger marks the first significant battle this session in the war over funding for the Thornton plan, named for a special commission headed by Prince George's County school board chief Alvin Thornton. The spending plan calls for the state to increase funding to school districts by $1.3 billion a year by 2008.

In a state where education consistently ranks among voters' top concerns, the Thornton plan is hugely popular. Earlier this week, thousands of teachers, students and education activists marched on the State House to support the Thornton plan. Last month, a Washington Post poll found that nearly three-quarters of Marylanders surveyed would consider it unacceptable to scale back Thornton funding.

Ironically, the authors of the Thornton plan could not summon the political will to pay for the initiative. Instead of approving a funding source last year, they added the trigger, requiring future legislators to decide whether the state has the resources to move ahead or whether the program should be scrapped for a less ambitious plan known informally as "Thornton Lite."

Ehrlich has provided most of the money for this year's installation of the plan, but he has said he cannot pay for the program in future years without a dedicated source of revenue, preferably a tax on the proceeds of slot machine gambling.

Republicans howled yesterday that House Democrats were trying to strip out the very provision that allowed Thornton to win passage.

"What we have termed the trigger provision was actually a carefully crafted compromise that allowed the Thornton bill to pass and be signed into law," O'Donnell argued to fellow lawmakers. If the House votes to repeal the trigger, the measure will move to the Senate. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the upper chamber would likely approve the measure and send it back to the House, along with a bill to legalize slot machines.

It's unclear what the House will do with the slots bill. And it's unclear what Ehrlich will do if the Thornton trigger repeal lands on his desk. The governor, Fawell said, believes Thornton "is an enormously important issue" but has not decided whether to sign the repeal measure.

Rally Turnout -- 148 Busloads -- Deemed a Success
Organizer Relieved So Many 'Cared Enough for Education'
By Vikki Ortiz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2004; Page AA03

It was 4:30 p.m. on Monday, and the parking lot behind Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was mostly empty. Debbie Ritchie was getting nervous.

For months, Ritchie, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs, had urged parents, teachers and community members to meet at the stadium for a planned rally to demand that state lawmakers keep a promise made two years ago to spend an additional $1.3 billion a year on public education by 2008. She believed in the funding plan so strongly that she found herself talking about the so-called Thornton Act, at home, in classrooms and even at the salon where she goes for manicures.

"I got there early . . . and there was nobody," Ritchie said. "And I thought, oh no! Are they going to come?"

Moments later, they did.

In a show of force, eight busloads of Anne Arundel residents began pulling into the stadium parking lot along with 140 other buses carrying rally supporters from around the state.

The crowd of thousands came with posters marked with slogans such as "Keep your promise," "Our Kids can't wait" and other messages. They brought large speakers to pump out Luther Vandross songs for motivation. And they wore sneakers and other shoes so that they could walk in comfort more than a mile from the stadium to the State House.

There, the gathering crowd was so deep that Ritchie could barely see the stage where speakers stood. But that's okay, she thought to herself. She was there.

When it was all over -- the marching, the shouting, the chanting and the noise -- Ritchie who has been a PTA activist since her eighth-grade daughter started school, was satisfied.

"They came out," Ritchie said proudly the day after the rally, for which she organized local demonstrators. "It was cold, it was a Monday night, a beginning of the workweek, but they cared enough for education."

Like Ritchie, many at the rally directed their pleas for education funding to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who inherited the Thornton funding pledge, which was designed to equalize the way the state doles out money to Maryland's 24 local school systems.

In an attempt to deal with a $700 million budget deficit, Ehrlich has said that the state cannot afford to fund the entire Thornton plan unless slot machine gambling is legalized. Meanwhile, a sprinkling of demonstrators showed support for Ehrlich. They carried "Thank you, Governor," and "Pro-Thornton, Pro-Ehrlich" signs.

But the overwhelming majority of Monday night's crowd was squarely for full funding -- with or without the legalization of slot machines.

— By Lori Montgomery and By Vikki Ortiz
Thornton Plan Wins Backing /Rally Turnout -- 148 Busloads -- Deemed a Success/ /



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