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State embarks on review of school spending

A state-commissioned study on how school systems are financed could lead to increased funding, especially for jurisdictions that have seen declining enrollment over the last decade.

Education advocates, unions and representatives county governments were briefed Tuesday on the study that could lead to changes and increased funding for what has become known as the Thornton education funding formula.

State Schools Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery called the review by a team of consultants “critical to the funding process around the state.”

The Maryland State Department of Education will pay $1.05 million to the Denver, Colorado-based firm Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates to perform an education funding adequacy study required by law. The firm was the same used more than a decade ago in the original Maryland Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence that came to be known as Thornton, after Alvin Thornton, the chairman of the commission and architect of the 2002 funding formula.

Under the new review, the consultants will look at the issue of per-pupil state funding to local school districts taking into consideration jurisdictional wealth, increasing and decreasing enrollments and potentially the effect that using smaller schools would have on educational outcomes. The group will also make recommendations on the state’s Geographic Cost of Education Index — a discretionary fund that in 2015 will provide nearly $133 million to some counties in order to account for higher regional costs related to education.

“We’re looking at lots of pieces that affect the learning program,” said Mark Fermanich, who will lead the study for Augenblich, Palaich and Associates.

The review, which is expected to last more than two years, comes nearly 12 years after the passage of the Thornton plan for funding education, which phased in $1.3 billion in school spending over six years.

That law required the state to revisit the issue of funding in two phases beginning in June and concluding in December 2016.

The increase in spending over the last decade helped the state claim Education Week’s No. 1 ranking in five of the last six years. But this year, the magazine streamlined its process and made student achievement more important than the amount of funding for education. Maryland did not finish first in any of the three categories used by the magazine.

But the large increases in spending on education also combined with other factors to push the state budget into the red. Over the last 12 years, two governors and the General Assembly have struggled with overcoming structural budget deficits that at times were equal to the full amount of the Thornton plan.

Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who chaired the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and is often referred to as the mother of Thornton, said the review of current funding levels and educational outcomes is needed.

“We really need this change,” said Hoffman.

Some of the most profound effects could be felt in smaller counties, mostly rural, that have seen declining enrollment numbers.

“Unless you’re one of those counties that has seen growing enrollment, you’re not getting any more money,” Hoffman said. “There’s just no growth in the formula. The counties that have declining enrollment are really having problems.”

Final recommendations are not due for two years. After that, Hoffman said, legislators will need to be brought into the process in order to hammer out legislation that implements the recommendations, as was done in 2002.

The cost of that legislation won’t be fully known until then. Hoffman saidit might not be as much as the original Thornton program.

“If we were starting from where we started 12 years ago, it would be,” Hoffman said. “But we’re starting from a better place. Maybe it won’t be as expensive. But maybe it will because there are other factors.”