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C. Fraser Smith: Look beyond bottom line on schools

The Thornton Commission.

It’s one of most ambitious and widely recognized spending adventures in Maryland history.

The General Assembly set out to equalize spending on public education classroom by classroom, from Oakland in the far west to Berlin in the east. Legislators wanted equity fairness, no doubt, but lawsuits were occasionally threatened.

The spending part — billions of dollars over five years and continuing — started in 2002.

But was that the end of it? Did mathematical equity equal educational adequacy? Are students learning, succeeding? That would be the ultimate question, wouldn’t it?

In truth, the arithmetic part was easy. You split up the money and send out the checks.

But, again, is it working? Are students getting the “adequate” education promised to them by state law?

A group of researchers at the University of Maryland have been bringing this and other questions to the attention of Maryland taxpayers and legislators.

“The Maryland Equity Project,” according to its charter, “seeks to improve education through research that supports an informed public policy debate on the quality and distribution of educational opportunities. It conducts, synthesizes and distributes research on key educational questions in Maryland and facilities collaboration between researchers and policymakers.”

One area of inquiry? Vertical equity. We think the goals of classroom-by-classroom or horizontal equity have been reached, but what about equity as defined by differences in income? Schools in pockets of poverty may need more money to achieve “adequacy.”

“Students with language or financial disadvantages may need more funding to bring them to a level of adequacy,” says Gail Sunderman, the Equity Project’s senior researcher.

What the project proposes has a built-in challenge. It’s inherently political. Social science research is one thing, politics another. Research may show exactly what should be done. Politics may impose any number of hurdles.

Sunderman and her colleagues realize the political stars are not as well aligned as they were before Nov. 4 — election day. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown lost his race for governor — a setback for Sunderman and her team.

Brown was the state’s most prominent fan of universal pre-kindergarten education in Maryland. His victorious opponent, the Republican Larry Hogan, is unlikely to share Brown’s passion for that move. Not because he doesn’t believe in it, but because he wants to cut spending.

Sunderman’s group offers research by others showing that funding for kindergarten is an investment — and a bargain in the long run. Some studies suggest every dollar spent saves seven over time. Not to speak of improving the lifetime advantages that could be lost.

Brown and others supported the program based on the kind of research Sunderman and others are using. The young brain needs stimulation starting at age 3. Miss those years and young people may have lost prime learning time — time that cannot be made up.

Yes, but legislators have to look at the upfront costs. They have to be concerned about the immediate costs — whether the state can afford the investment as much as policymakers may be attracted to it.

A recent study of changes in school population provides critically important data on altered economic status, racial shifts and ideas for addressing a student population with greater needs for the basic necessities of life. Schools and teachers can’t make up for poor health care and lower cost housing.

Schools “alone cannot close racial and economic achievement gaps in a substantial, consistent and sustainable manner,” the study said. “Policies aimed at the social and economic disadvantages of students and their families and collaboration across policy sectors will be required if all students are to have the opportunities they need to be successful.”

On the one hand, looking for effective and new approaches will always have challenges. The idea that researchers and lawmakers might work together seems overdue. Why hasn’t it happened already?

We have to assume that equity is always the objective of both sides.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.