In 1983, Maryland’s highest court rejected an “equity” challenge to the state’s education finance system, in Hornbeck v. Somerset County Board of Education, 458 A.2d 758, holding that the state constitution did not mandate equality in per-pupil spending among the state’s school districts. However, the court also held that the education clause of the Maryland constitution embodies a right to “an adequate education measured by contemporary educational standards.”

In 1994, the ACLU and Baltimore City initiated suits against the state, alleging that the city’s students were not receiving an adequate education. In a 1996 summary judgment decision, in the consolidated Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education case, the trial court agreed, but the cause of the inadequacies was in dispute. On the eve of trial, the parties entered into a settlement that provided a modest increase in state funding for the Baltimore City Public Schools in return for changes in school governance.

Plaintiffs returned to court in 2000, and the circuit court declared that the state “is still not providing the children of Baltimore City…a constitutionally adequate education,” has failed to comply with the 1996 Consent Decree, and needs to provide “additional funding of approximately $2,000 to $2,600 per pupil” in 2001 and 2002. The state did not comply with that order; but it did establish a commission (the “Thorton Commission”) to study and make recommendations on school funding.

In April 2002, Maryland enacted a new finance system, based on the Thornton Commission’s recommendations (see below), including sending more state funding to high-need districts, and to be phased in over six years. After this major reform was passed, the Bradford plaintiffs asked the circuit court to retain jurisdiction, pending implementation. The court agreed.

The latest decision in the Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education case came June 9, 2005, when the Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) ruled on an earlier state circuit court order that the legislature should appropriate extra funds to the Baltimore City School District to help manage budget shortfalls. Though the Court of Appeals reversed circuit court Judge Joseph Kaplan’s determination that the Education Fiscal Accountability and Oversight Act, which requires school districts to eliminate deficits or face cuts in state aid, was unconstitutional, its primary finding was that other aspects of the order were not final, and thus not subject to appeal. These aspects of the circuit court opinion included the determination that Baltimore City students were being deprived of their right to a thorough and efficient education, as well as precatory language urging the State to increase funding. As a result of the Court of Appeals’ decision, both sides in the case claimed partial victory; the State heralded the confirmation of the Act’s constitutionality while the ACLU and Baltimore City underlined that the case was still alive in the circuit court.

In September 2015, Baltimore charter school operators filed a suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners challenging what they claim is the city’s inequitable and inadequate funding of charter schools.

The charter operators’ claims, at their core, are about the city of Baltimore’s approach to funding charter schools.  According to the complaint, the Maryland State Board of Education, as affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals, has interpreted Education Article Sec. 9-109 of Maryland’s statutes to require school boards to provide equal per-pupil funding to charter and traditional schools. The charter operators allege that this statutory requirement is explicitly embedded in their governing agreements with the city, and that it obligates the city to “provide openness and transparency” in the calculation and distribution of funding to charter schools.

According to school district officials, a strict per capita funding allocation for all schools would not take into account the extra costs of educating at risk students, English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities, of whom there are proportionally fewer in charter schools. The funding issue came to a head this year when the district authorized a per-pupil allocation for charters that lowered funding for a number of charter schools, despite an increase in the overall system’s budget. The charter schools’ complaint alleges the district has never explained how it calculates per-pupil costs and refuses to share a detailed accounting of the administrative and other expenses it deducts from its overall budget.

Other Litigation

In April 2006, students with the Baltimore Algebra Project filed a motion in circuit court, requesting temporary control over the state school board, and they requested that the state provide $800 million for Baltimore City schools. The students based their claim on Judge Kaplan’s 2004 determination that the State had under-funded the Baltimore City schools by $400 million to $800 million since 2000. Judge Kaplan denied the motion, but called upon the school district, the City of Baltimore, the Bradford plaintiffs, and the students of the Baltimore Algebra Project to work together to determine the cost of implementing the “corrective” actions mandated for the Baltimore City schools by the State Board of Education.

Molly A. Hunter, Maryland Enacts Modern, Standards-Based Education Finance System: Reforms Based on Adequacy Costing-Out Studies and Parallel New York Court Funding Principles,  Access Policy Brief (2002).

Diane W. Cipollone, Gambling on a Settlement: The Baltimore City Schools Adequacy Litigations, 23 Journal of Education Finance 87 (Summer 1998).

Last Updated: May 2012