If ever there was an issue that received far greater attention than it deserved from Maryland’s elected leaders in Annapolis, it’s the business of whether the school year should start before or after Labor Day. With Friday’s 93-43 vote in the House of Delegates to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of legislation returning that decision to local school boards — essentially overturning the governor’s 2016 executive order mandating the later start — the matter now returns to places like Snow Hill and Westminster, Towson and Rockville where teachers, parents, school administrators and other interested parties can debate and decide the matter to their hearts’ content.
But before we bid adieu to an issue that cried out for less crying out, we must take a moment to marvel at Mr. Hogan’s final (hopefully) words on the subject. In his three-page veto message of March 27, Governor Hogan chastised state lawmakers for their decision. That’s to be expected, as he was deeply invested in the post-Labor Day start. But here’s where it got interesting. He also suggested that a compromise had been available if only the General Assembly had taken his preferred action and returned control of the school calendar to local school boards, with one catch — any decision to start school after Labor Day would have to be approved by local voters.
Now, let that sink in for a minute. A county- or city-wide referendum on the school calendar. School boards can make decisions on what schools are kept open or are closed. They can set pay or benefits. They can adopt curriculum or reconfigure school districts, build new buildings or let existing ones fall into disrepair, and spend millions or billions of taxpayer dollars without voters having any say whatsoever other than deciding who should serve on the board of education (and in some cases not even that). But adjust the school calendar by a few days? That’s a matter so important that it might have to be tabled for a year or two until the next election so voters can weigh in.
Indeed, the governor is so unimpressed by what legislators did on the matter that he dismissed the idea that it provided “local control” at all. “Our bill,” he wrote, “would have offered genuine, local control over this important issue.”
In other words, school board decisions aren’t “genuine local control” (or “genuine, local control” if you prefer to add an extra comma like Mr. Hogan). To achieve actual genuineness, you need to take the matter to voters. That means, of course, that pretty much everything the governor has done while in office has similarly lacked genuineness because rarely did it require voter approval (leaving aside constitutional amendments like same-day voter registration or the casino education “lock box” proposal, both of which voters endorsed last year).
What a long, strange trip it’s been with this matter of when to open schools. At times, it’s been about accommodating Comptroller Peter Franchot and assuring his vote on the Board of Public Works. In other cases, it’s been about embarrassing political opponents like the late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and boosting the argument for temporary air conditioners in classrooms. Sometimes, it’s been a matter of lashing out at the teacher’s unions. Pretty much throughout, it’s been about doing a favor for Ocean City businesses that wanted to extend the summer season (and their access to the teen workforce). But underneath it all has been a usurpation of school board authority over the school calendar and a complete indifference to what that means for the actual quality of education taking place in those classrooms.
It’s this last business that is by far the most troubling element of Governor Hogan’s school calendar manifesto. If he could muster half the passion he has invested in this Labor Day debacle into upgrading the performance of schools — beginning with the blueprint produced by the Kirwan Commission (aka the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education) — the governor could have a genuine impact on something families care about far more deeply than the day schools open. It’s not just about spending more money (although that’s a major part of it), it’s about giving the next generation of Marylanders a world-class educational system and the skills to compete in the 21st century economy. Mr. Hogan’s tepid engagement on this initiative — perhaps the most important matter state government is facing — is one reason why lawmakers are likely to accomplish little more than a one or two-year collection of baby steps toward school reform this legislative session instead of the robust, long-term (and, yes, costly) commitment required.