Law puts social studies back in the limelight

Social studies, a subject that had been demoted in Maryland schools in recent years, will regain some of its past educational stature under a bill signed Tuesday by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Under the legislation — one of hundreds of bills O'Malley signed into law — high school seniors will have to pass an assessment in government to be able to graduate starting with the Class of 2017. The Maryland State Department of Education dropped the test last year.

Advocates said the test was eliminated as the result of a de-emphasis on social studies stemming from passage of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind bill, which threw federal support behind the instruction of reading and math at the expense of other subjects.

The result, some contend, is that students don't know much about history — or any of the other branches of social studies.

"In many elementary schools it was hardly taught," said Scott McComb, president-elect of the Maryland Council for Social Studies. "In some high-poverty areas, it wasn't taught at all."

The legislation, McComb said, "will help stem the marginalization of social studies in Maryland." He said social studies includes such topics as geography and basic financial literacy in elementary school, as well as government and U.S. and world history in high school. The measure also will beef up the state's commitment to science instruction.

According to the Department of Legislative Services, a 2005 survey found that nine of 10 Maryland elementary school teachers said social studies was not a high-priority subject in their schools.

McComb said the decision of the state school board to eliminate the government test in the high schools galvanized supporters of social studies instruction. The lead sponsors of the bill O'Malley signed Tuesday were House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller — a strong signal of the importance they attached to the legislation

Soon after the bills passed the legislature with bipartisan support, the state school board voted last month to bring back the high school assessment in government, which had been dropped because of budget cuts. The test will be offered again starting in 2013.

In addition to requiring reinstatement of the high school test, the legislation will require the state school board to adopt middle school assessments in core subjects including social studies starting with the 2014-2015 school year.

The education department also will be tasked with conducting a statewide survey to assess the amount of instructional time spent on social studies and science in elementary schools. And it will be required to determine whether social studies and science teachers have adequate resources. At the high school level, the department must determine how many social studies and science classes are being taught by teachers with certification in those areas.

Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state education department, said the school board eliminated the high school social studies test reluctantly in 2011 because of a severe budget crunch. He said that unlike reading or math, the state had the flexibility to drop the test because it was not required by the federal government.

Reinhard said the action did not reflect any lack of appreciation for social studies.

"It is a core subject as far as we're concerned," he said.

The education department supported the legislation, along with the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.

One of the few opponents was the Maryland Association of School Boards. John Woolums, government relations director for the group, said the organization generally opposes General Assembly intervention in curriculum and instruction matters. In the past, he noted, legislators have tried to insert mandates into school curricula requiring educators to teach about such specific topics as the Irish potato famine.

"Those decisions should be made locally by local boards of education in their policy-making role," he said. "This is fairly significant in terms of the legislature encroaching into the assessment area."

Woolums admitted his group didn't mount an all-out effort to block the bill — especially in view of its sponsorship by the presiding officers.

"No one was surprised to see it passed and signed," he said.

Reinhard said as legislative interventions go, this was not a bad one.

"We hold our breaths sometimes when the General Assembly gets involved in policy, but we think this one was a real good thing," he said.

In signing hundreds of bills, the governor formally completed the work of the 90-day regular General Assembly session and the special session that followed. One new law makes Maryland the first state in the country to ban the use of arsenic in chicken feed — an effort that was fought by the Delmarva poultry industry.

Del. Tom Hucker, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House, said he was proud to see Maryland taking a leadership role.

"Today Maryland's showing the rest of the country how to protect the environment and food safety," Hucker said. He added that he's confident other states will follow Maryland's lead.

Hucker said the law will send a message to consumers that they can be sure Maryland-raised chickens are arsenic-free. He said Europe and Canada — as well as fast-food giant McDonald's — have banned arsenic for years.

The governor also wrapped up the business of last week's special session by signing two budget-related bills. One will raise income taxes on individuals making more than $100,000 after taxes and couples earning more than $150,000. The other will shift, over four years, part of the cost of teacher pensions from the state to the counties.

Another bill O'Malley signed will bring a measure of tax relief to Maryland's farm families. It will exempt the first $5 million of a farm's value from the estate tax as long as the land stays in agriculture. Advocates contend it will keep farm families from being forced to leave agriculture or sell off large tracts of land to pay massive tax bills.

Most new laws take effect June 1, July 1 or October 1.

Major bills signed Tuesday

Tax increase: The law will increase income taxes on individuals making more than $100,000 and couples earning over $150,000 after deductions – an estimated 14 percent of Marylanders. The measure will also increase taxes on some tobacco products to discourage use by young people.

Pension shift: The law will start a four-year transfer to Baltimore and the counties of some teacher pension costs traditionally paid by the state. The cost to local governments will be partly offset by increases in local tax revenues.

Family farms: The law will exempt up to $5 million of the value of a family farm from Maryland's estate tax and cap the amount of tax above that, as long as family members who inherit the land keep it in agriculture.

Donor sperm and eggs: The law will prohibit the use of donor sperm or eggs to conceive a child after the donor dies unless the donor gave written consent. It also will limit the inheritance rights of children conceived posthumously.

City elections: The law will move Baltimore's elections to the presidential cycle starting in 2016.