A nearly 30-year-old lawsuit that was crucial in setting the course for how Maryland funds its public schools is being revived as lawyers argued Wednesday in Baltimore City Circuit Court over whether the state is providing an adequate education for city school children.

The ACLU and the Legal Defense Fund are arguing that despite findings of circuit and appellate courts over the years, the state has never funded city schools at a level that would provide students with an appropriate education as required under the Maryland Constitution. They point to a 2017 assessment by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services that found the state should be giving $342.3 million more annually to the city schools.

In addition, attorneys argued the state has failed to provide essential funding to maintain and construct new school buildings, presenting an array of pictures of leaking pipes and unsafe conditions in city schools. A recent state assessment shows the city has the oldest and most deteriorated school facilities, despite a $1.1 billion investment over the past decade to rebuild or renovate 34 schools in 29 buildings. An additional 89 schools are still deteriorated, argued Alaizah Koorji, of the Legal Defense Fund. She said another $3.86 billion was required to bring school buildings up to state standards.

The attorneys have asked Circuit Court Judge Audrey J. S. Carrión for a summary judgment that would avoid a trial, saying that the facts of the case are not in dispute. They want her to find that the state has consistently underfunded the city schools and is liable for correcting the problem, and to order a funding plan.

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The case, Bradford vs. the Maryland State Board of Education, resulted in a consent decree between the state and the city in 1997 that eventually led to the legislature’s enactment of a public school funding mechanism, called the Thornton formula, which allows for more equitable funding for schools.

In some states, schools are funded only by a county or town’s property taxes, but in Maryland the state attempts to reduce the gaps between poor and wealthy counties by providing substantial funding to every county and the city. A wealthy county such as Montgomery County receives less state funding for education than a poorer jurisdiction like Baltimore City. A large portion of city school funding comes from the state.

The court arguments come at an interesting juncture. The city schools are benefitting from a flood of increased funding in the last couple of years, a result of federal COVID-19 relief dollars and new money from the state’s Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a new school finance formula.

Maryland’s landmark education funding law aims to provide $4 billion more annually for the state’s public schools by the time it is fully implemented in 2030. The Blueprint began providing significantly more funding for schools across the state this school year and is being watched by school finance officials across the nation as a model for other states to follow.

But Legal Defense Fund and ACLU lawyers say the city schools have been underfunded for decades — with their school buildings allowed to deteriorate and their classrooms lacking resources for students who are economically disadvantaged. Many of these classrooms have high numbers of students with disabilities or who are learning English as a second language. The attorneys argue that even after the Thornton funding formula was put into effect, state leaders reneged on some of the details of the funding formula and cut back on the money that had been promised.

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They argue that the Blueprint does not make up for decades of underfunding, and that there is no guarantee that the legislature will fund the Blueprint every year until 2030.

However, Charles Monk, a partner in the law firm of Saul Ewing LLP, who represented the state, said the judge’s decision should be limited to the issues in the consent decree signed in 1996, which he argued was based around a deal struck to provide state funding for the city in return for Maryland taking over some control of the system. The city regained control of the city schools in 2017, and the mayor now appoints all but two of the school board members.

Monk said that Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, a circuit court judge who handled the case for decades after its filing in 1994, never ordered the state legislature to give a specific amount of money to the city schools, and therefore, Carrión should not, either.

Carrión questioned attorneys for both sides on the meaning of rulings by Kaplan, who died earlier this year. And she asked attorneys whether she had legal authority to order the legislature to provide a certain amount of money for the city schools. Among her questions, she said, are, “Is this a political question or not? ... And whether this is best decided by the legislature or not?”

The judge did not rule on Wednesday, but is expected to give a written opinion next year.

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This story was updated to correct the amount of money needed to bring school buildings up to standards. It is $3.86 billion, not $386 billion.

liz.bowie@thebaltimorebanner.com

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