ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Holding neon light sticks in the chill darkness and placards that read “Fund Public Schools,” parents, students, teachers and other school workers marched on the State House Feb. 9 to demand that Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the Legislature deliver on their promise of $1.3 billion in state aid to Maryland’s schools.

The demonstrators arrived on hundreds of yellow school buses from every county in the state. Organizers estimated the crowd at 20,000, the largest demonstration here in decades. They filled the Naval Academy stadium parking lot and marched a mile to the Capitol.

Signs among the huge crowd read, “Leave No Child Behind,” “Books Not Bombs,” “Education is Homeland Security” and “Save Our Schools.”

Tim Causion, a teacher at Baltimore’s Leith Walk Elementary, was leading 100 of his pupils who arrived on two buses. “We are Leith Walk, mighty, mighty Leith Walk,” the youngsters chanted.

Causion blasted federal, state and city officials for a budget crisis that has already forced the termination of 800 Baltimore school employees. Another 1,200 are threatened with pink slips.

“They’re laying off teachers,” he said. “Our facilities are run down. Baltimore schools are $58 million in deficit. Now they are demanding that we take a 6.8 percent pay cut and a 10-day unpaid furlough. Enough is enough! If they can spend $87 billion in Iraq, they can find money to help our schools here.”

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English exulted that 4,000 union teachers turned out in an ice storm Feb. 6 to vote resoundingly against the takeaways and three days later traveled en masse to Annapolis.

“We filled 18 buses,” she told the World. “The federal government owes us the money to provide education for our children. The state has a constitutional obligation to provide for our schools. Here we are on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and our schools are still ‘separate and unequal.’ No Child Left Behind is an unfunded mandate. We need a president in the White House who cares about public education, cares about our children.” Asked if George W. Bush fits the bill, she retorted, “No! No! No!”

The main demand of the Feb. 9 march, “Full Funding of Thornton,” referred to a state commission’s recommendation that the state come up with $1.3 billion for equalizing per-pupil funding. Baltimore City Public Schools alone would receive an additional $250 million between now and 2008 under the plan already approved by the General Assembly.

Ehrlich, a right-wing Republican closely allied to George W. Bush, said money will be available for the Thornton program only if slot machine gambling is legalized.

Ehrlich said it was “arrogant” and “improper” for school districts throughout the state to mobilize teachers, parents and pupils to attend the rally. His press spokesman snarled that the demonstration was a “rally for slots.” The crowd answered with signs such as, “Don’t gamble with our children.”

Leslie Backus, a teacher of horticulture and life sciences at Montgomery-Blair, a high school in Montgomery County, told the World, “I don’t like Ehrlich holding our schools hostage for the benefit of his cronies who are into gambling.” Baltimore music teacher Scott MacLeod accused Ehrlich of “holding a gun to the heads of legislators” to get slots approved.

Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, told the crowd, “It’s time to end the rhetoric. A promise is a promise.” Addressing the legislators in the Capitol building behind her, she added, “This is your chance to make good on your promise.”

Esther Parker, president of the Maryland Congress of Parent Teacher Associations, told the lawmakers, “Stop fighting within yourselves. Get together and find us the money.”

The community organization ACORN filled 21 of the estimated 60 buses that came from Baltimore City. ACORN leader Wendy Foy, mother of four children in Baltimore schools, told the crowd a state of emergency exists in public school funding. “We are at war and the troops are here, parents, students, teachers, community organizations, union members and more. … The future of our children is now! Let’s not fail them.”

The next afternoon, demonstrators rallied in front of the Baltimore Board of Education for yet another protest. Joyce Wheeler, laid off after 34 years in the Baltimore schools, hailed the nationwide upsurge in defense of public education. School officials estimate that $16 million in additional cuts is necessary to stave off bankruptcy and Mayor Martin O’Malley had just announced that the city would lend the school system $8 million if teachers would agree to a 3.5 percent pay cut to cover the other half. “If the city can come up with $8 million, why not ask George W. Bush for the other $8 million so no Baltimore child is left behind?” Wheeler demanded as the crowd applauded. “Teachers didn’t create this deficit. Why should they sacrifice to eliminate it?”

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