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Education funding a top priority for Tri-State legislators

January 08, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Public school education, a top issue in the November elections, will be on the minds of Tri-State area legislators when they convene this month.

Specifically, all three states will grapple with how to boost funding in especially lean budget years.

In Maryland, Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich will be looking for a way to fulfill promised increases in state education in the shadow of a $1.8 billion budget shortfall.

One option is legalizing slot machines, although some lawmakers have said that won't be enough to cover the $1.3 billion cost over six years.

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Washington County Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said she is concerned the Washington County Commissioners will cut back on education funding in response to state increases.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said state law is supposed to prevent that from happening. McKee served on the House Ways and Means Committee that reviewed the so-called Thornton education funding legislation last year.

Money for higher education, which increased dramatically during Gov. Parris Glendening's eight-year administration, may be a target for cuts.

Some people in the community have expressed concerned that cuts could jeopardize the success of the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center, slated to open downtown in fall 2004.

In Pennsylvania, there is a move toward tax reform and changing the way schools are funded.

Gov.-elect Ed Rendell has promised to shift the burden for funding schools away from school property taxes.

"Everybody agrees property taxes are inequitable and unfair," said Del. Patrick Fleagle, R-Franklin.

But there's been no consensus on what type of tax would be better, said Fleagle, who is on the House Education Committee.

Fleagle said an increase in the 6 percent sales tax would hurt Southcentral Pennsylvania because it would drive more shoppers across the board to Maryland, which charges 5 percent sales tax.

Like in Maryland, Pennsylvania lawmakers may also consider legalizing slot machines to pay for education, he said.

Other education issues that might be raised in 2003 include relaxing the regulations on homeschoolers, creating a school voucher program and reviewing the performance of the Philadelphia school system, Fleagle said.

In West Virginia, state lawmakers will be looking to stabilize the employee health insurance program and push for better teacher pay in areas such as the Eastern Panhandle, where the cost of living is higher, said Del.-elect Walter Duke, R-Berkeley.

Duke, a high school social studies teacher, expects to serve on the House Education Committee during his first term.

In all areas of government, the legislature will be looking to spend taxpayers' money more wisely, he said.

"I hear a lot of people say, 'Spend the money where the rubber hits the road,' " Duke said.

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