First a Ride, Then a March

First a Ride, Then a March

Thousands go to Annapolis to demand education funding.

They came. They came from across the state in the big yellow schoolbuses that let riders feel every pothole, or in their own luxury cars that felt none.

But in a night that was mostly about numbers, it didn’t matter how they got there, as long as they were there — a point made by several of the dozen speakers. “When you feel you [state legislators] don’t have enough support, please remember one cold evening in February,” said Pat Richardson of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland.

Buses left from each of the High Schools in Montgomery County, bringing area teachers, students and administrators to the rally.

“I needed to come to lend support for the plea,” said Robin Gordon, principal at Seven Locks Elementary.

Thousands descended upon the Statehouse in Annapolis on Feb. 9, and in the shadow of the statue of Thurgood Marshall, demanded that the state government fund public schools.

Governor Robert Ehrlich’s (R) budget calls for providing $3.6 billion to the schools, $1.3 billion of which is a result of Thornton funding. This amount is approximately $326 million more than last year. The entire state budget is approximately $23 billion.

What was not funded was the geographic index, the formula which allocated funds to counties based on factors like cost of living and transportation costs.

This index would mean about $42 million across the state, approximately $15 million of which would go to Montgomery County.

Last year, The Montgomery County Council spent about $1.5 billion of its $3 billion budget on public schools.

The state law is frequently called Thornton, after the commission which developed the recommendations and funding formula for the bill.

Several speakers pointed to the state Constitution, Article Eight, which obliges the state to fund public schools. “The Constitution doesn’t say that if you’re afraid to raise taxes, that’s OK,” said Susan Goering of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The final speaker of the night was Alvin Thornton, a faculty member at Howard University whose commission developed the recommendations which led to the bill. Thornton took advantage of the opportunity to support education funding by chanting his own name. “Thornton, Thornton,” he shouted upon taking the podium.

Thornton described the work of his commission to the crowd, telling them that as they met and discussed their study, the spirit of Thurgood Marshall spoke to them as they passed his statue. “You must do right by the children,” Thornton said, channeling Marshall.

He also echoed Goering’s call for higher taxes, if necessary, to fund education. “Ask people who can pay more to pay more,” Thornton said. “Ask the people who can to share their wealth with our babies.”

The speakers, however, were peripheral to the event as a whole. What organizers wanted, and got, was a large number of people to show up.

“Often they [legislators] just have to see large numbers of people,” said Susan Sonnesyn Brooks, co-president of Bethesda’s Wood Acres Elementary, who brought her two children with her. “So, we’re here, in part, to be bodies.”

“I came because my mom made me,” said her son, Callan Brooks, 7. Brooks rode in on the bus from Whitman High School.

School systems across the state offered incentives to people who wanted to attend. The bus rides were free, and in Montgomery County, high school students could get public service credits if they attended the rally and wrote about it.

“The more people that show up tonight, it makes an impact,” said Claudia Everett, a media specialist at Bel Pre Elementary in Silver Spring. Everett’s principal allowed her to leave work early to attend the rally.

“[I came] to let the government know that I wanted to make sure that the Thornton bill got fully funded,” said Ellen Harrison, a 2nd-grade teacher at Potomac Elementary.

THOSE WHO attended were mixed about whether the rally would make a difference. “I think the demonstration will have a lot to do with the funding. … People are coming from all over the state to express their concern,” said Georgia Portocarrero, English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Veirs Mill Elementary.

“What’s significant about this rally is that isn’t not just teachers coming.” Students, principals and administrators are also voicing their concerns to the state government,” said Jeff Wolf, Bridge Program teacher at Churchill.

Some, however, did not believe the rally would help, but came anyway. “I’m not optimistic, really … and I’m usually an optimistic person,” said Andrea Cetlin, 2nd-grade teacher at Potomac Elementary.

Cetlin pointed to the Governor’s claim that the only way to fund the Thornton bill was to allow slot machines in the state. “I think Gov. Ehrlich wants the slots in the state, and I think he’s going to try whatever tactics he can to get them in the state,” she said.

“If I were optimistic that it was going to be funded fully, then I wouldn’t need to come. … I’m worried about the funding for all the schools in the state of Maryland, particularly Montgomery County,” Gordon said.

The impact of the demonstration remains to be seen, but the legislative session ends in March and the outcome will be evident by then.

“What the outcome will be, who can say, but to do nothing implies we don’t care,” Everett said.