Maryland school districts have announced that they will offer up to two service-learning hours to students who join teachers, administrators and parents at a rally Monday at the state capital in support of education funding.

The Thornton law, formally called the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act (search), passed in 2002. It calls for $1.3 billion in increased public school funding over six years and the creation of all-day kindergarten. Maryland lawmakers are debating whether to fund fully the initiative or cut $45 million from the fiscal year 2005 allotment to save money in a deficit-laden budget.

State law requires students to earn 75 service-learning hours to graduate, but it allows each school system to design its own programs, as long as they follow general state guidelines. The hours can be amassed on community or charity projects or a political event — anything that benefits the community.

Critics say that schools should not give students an incentive to attend such a politicized event, but school officials said events like the school-funding rally meet state definitions for a service-learning activity.

"It meets the criteria set for student service-learning," said Katie O'Malley-Simpson, a spokeswoman for Charles County schools. "Anything you do promotes the interest of something so we don't see a problem with it. It is not something we promoted ... but we would approve it."

Others say student involvement at the rally is crossing the line.

"Students are being used to support the demands of teachers unions," said Richard Falknor, executive director of the Maryland Taxpayers Association (search).

"Even if they use those students to support something we agree with, it is the wrong message to send," Falknor said. "They haven't heard a reasonable discussion. They haven't heard people from the Heritage (Foundation) or even Maryland experts."

The state does say that, to earn hours for political activity, the project must promote voter education through activities such as meeting with lawmakers, working for candidates or engaging in "activities that provide information to voters about current issues."

The Maryland Student Service Alliance (search), which oversees the service-learning programs for the state, had "no formal opinion" on the acceptability of the Thornton rally.

"As a state we don't have an opinion because it is up to the locals," said Julie Ayers, a service-learning specialist for MSSA.

Because of that, each county has a different program, Ayers said.

In Montgomery County, outside Washington, D.C., county service-learning coordinator Pam Meador said the non-profit group organizing an event — in this case, the Montgomery County Parent-Teacher Association (search— must teach the students about the issue.

"It is their responsibility to prepare the kids," Meador said. "A representative from the PTA will be saying this is what Thornton is, this is what the issues are, this is how it affects the community."

Most school systems said they would let the rally count toward service hours, but a few remained uncertain.

"I would have to investigate that," said Robert "Step" Mika, Cecil County service-learning coordinator. "That would be the thing: Would it be construed as political lobbying?"

Even Prince George's County, which is closing school early on Monday to let teachers attend the rally, has not decided whether to let the service hours count, said county schools spokeswoman Lynn McCawley.

"In order for it to be considered for student service ... they would have to hand out fliers or something," she said. They couldn't just "show up," because that is not service. The coordinator would have to find out exactly what the student was doing at the rally, McCawley said.

But Montgomery County's Meador said the rally is definitely a part of service-learning: Advocacy is one of three different types of service-learning, she said.

"This is an opportunity for kids to be involved in a rally in Annapolis, which is about the Thornton money," Meador said. "It comes right in line with what service-learning was originally designed for."

She said students have a stake in the Thornton funding and should be involved.

"We all advocate and promote issues that concern us. They are public school students, and it will affect them," Meador said. "We're just saying, 'Hey kids, if you're interested, you can get two service-learning hours.'"

Estelle Sanzenbacher, coordinator for Carroll County, agreed that the intentions are fully within service-learning guidelines.

"I think that it is an advocacy, and advocacy is a service-learning," she said.

Still, other counties have not been faced with the issue because students have not asked to attend for service hours.

"To be honest, it really hasn't come up," said Talbot County coordinator Kathy Dill. "I don't know how much of the word has gotten out, and it being a school night. But it would be fine for them to do so (and get service-learning hours)."