5 Maryland education issues to watch during this General Assembly session
By Lillian Reed
Feb 16, 2023 at 6:00 am
With Maryland’s 24 public school systems still rebounding from the coronavirus pandemic, General Assembly members and the newly installed governor are weighing hundreds of education-centered bills and budgets this legislative session.
So far, dozens of bills have been introduced that would overhaul public education across the state. Here’s an overview of some major legislative changes that are under consideration before the session is expected to adjourn April 10.
Funding for K-12 schools
Maryland’s governor is required to submit a balanced budget proposal to the General Assembly early in the legislative session. Lawmakers have until April 3 to enact a balanced budget, which goes into effect July 1.
Last month, Gov. Wes Moore unveiled a budget proposal that commits an additional $500 million in funding for the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a landmark education reform plan to be carried out over the next decade.
Other facets of his budget proposal seek to increase per-pupil spending by 9% and boost funding to support low-income students by 32%. It earmarks $15 million for teacher recruitment incentives and proposes about $1.1 billion for public school construction, less than the $1.2 billion that was included in the final budget last year.
In a written statement, Moore spokesperson Carter Elliott said Tuesday that the governor’s budget discussions with legislators “from both sides of the aisle have gone exceedingly well.”
Lawmakers also will consider whether to alter the terms of the Built To Learn Act of 2021, which increased annual funding for school construction projects throughout the state by about $125 million. The legislation does not revise the amount of school construction dollars but would give school systems more flexibility to use the funds for smaller renovations.
Maryland code requires local school systems to implement curricula that align with the state’s standards for students to be college- or career-ready. Although curriculum decisions fall to local school systems, Maryland lawmakers often propose changes to the state’s educational framework.
For example, some lawmakers are concentrating on updating the Maryland State Department of Education’s comprehensive health education framework. Proposed legislation says each local board of education would need to establish a committee of educators, health experts and community members to review and comment on whether curriculum materials are consistent with the state’s framework.
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The bill comes at a time when LGBTQ-inclusive education and topics such as gender identity are being challenged around the country. Maryland schools are required to teach age-appropriate lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation, though parents or guardians may opt their students out of such lessons. Maryland students may not opt out of instruction concerning menstruation. The bill would go on to prevent families from opting their student out of education related to HIV and AIDS prevention.
Another bill introduced this session would require the State Board of Education to develop curriculum content for a high school half-credit course in financial literacy, including lessons on creating a budget, saving money, debt, investments and amortization, as well as simple and compound interest.
Lawmakers also are considering a bill requiring state-funded schools to teach a unit on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks beginning in the 2024-25 academic year. A similar bill was proposed during the 2022 legislative session but did not pass.
Baltimore County Republican Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, who is sponsoring the Sept. 11 bill, said in a statement Tuesday that young people need to be aware of the “heroism and sacrifices as well as the consequences” of the attacks, citing the resulting security measures and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Legislators are considering an update to criminal law that would expand the definition of a “person in a position of authority” within the context of sexual offenses with a minor. Del. Sara Love, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation closes a loophole that excludes adults who often work closely with children outside traditional educational settings.
Under current law, a person in a position of authority includes a principal, vice principal, teacher, coach or school counselor at a public or private preschool, elementary school or secondary school. The new definition would include employees over the age of 20 working for a unit of local, state or federal government, school, child care facility, religious institution, a day or overnight camp, after-school program, or a commercial or nonprofit instructional program.
“[It] recognizes the reality of our kids’ lives,” Love said. “They spend so much time with these adults who are not under contract with a school but are very much in positions of authority.”
Another bill that seeks to protect children is the Maryland Age Appropriate Design Code Act. The bills, cross-filed in the House and Senate, would require tech companies to design their products with children’s well-being in mind. That includes restricting data collection and profiling of children, requiring high privacy settings by default, switching off geolocation, and banning techniques that encourage children to weaken their privacy protections.
Parents rights and responsibilities
Educational entities aren’t the only establishments facing legislative updates this year. Some bills seek to bolster rights for parents — or hold them accountable when their children misbehave.
The Parent and Guardian Accountability Act would require a primary caretaker to participate in counseling with their student after receiving notice of repeated violent or disruptive behavior on school premises or during school-related activities. Parents who flout this proposed law could face court-ordered community service. Similar legislation was introduced in 2020 and again in 2022.
Another bill worth watching is House Bill 294, which would place the burden of proof on local school boards during due process hearings for children with disabilities or the provision of a free appropriate public education.
Federal law requires school systems to provide a variety of specialized services such as speech or physical therapy to ensure children with emotional, physical and intellectual disabilities are properly educated. Parents who believe their students are not receiving the services they need can file a complaint and take their case to a judge.
Maryland parents rarely prevail in these legal battles, but this bill could give them more clout. The Maryland State Department of Education receives 200 to 300 special education due process requests each year, most of which are resolved through settlement, mediation and resolution sessions, or are withdrawn.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the burden of proof in such disputes lies with whichever party is seeking relief. Should the bill become law in Maryland, legislative aides predict the number of due process hearings could increase for a while as they did in New Jersey in the year following state lawmakers’ 2008 decision to shift the burden of proof back to school districts.
Although Maryland public school educators and certificated employees may form unions to bargain over their salaries, wages, hours and other working conditions, the state prohibits them from negotiating over class sizes.
Senate Bill 206 seeks to repeal that rule, meaning unions could negotiate with school districts over the maximum number of students assigned to a class. This proposal, if approved, could in theory increase the number of teachers a local school system must employ, as well as the number of classrooms needed.
Although the pandemic placed more pressure on educators — many of whom were spread thin by chronic school staff absences — this bill would give them a new opportunity to bargain over a facet of their workload. The bill also comes at a time when some Maryland school systems are grappling with aging facilities, overcrowding and expanding prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.
Another bill introduced in the House this session would protect employees of any public, private or parochial school in some cases from civil liability in a personal injury or property damage dispute concerning a student.
Del. Robin Grammer, a Baltimore County Republican sponsoring the bill, said the state needs to find ways to stabilize educational settings at a time when educators say they’re seeing discipline issues among students. Grammer said some educators have shared with him that they’re afraid to intervene in physical altercations between students for fear of getting sued.
“[Teachers] feel vulnerable and are reluctant to step in even when you have a really egregious situation where a student is clobbering a smaller student,” he said. “It gives protection to teachers acting in good faith in a bullying situation.”