Maryland Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday made their case against a series of state education bills that they say push a "privatization agenda" also championed by President Donald Trump and his controversial new education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
Dozens of Democrats joined the state teachers union to decry bills backed by Gov. Larry Hogan that would provide scholarships to private schools and encourage more charter schools in Maryland.
They said the Republican governor is following the same philosophy as Trump and DeVos, promoting private and charter schools at the expense of public schools.
"Educators must work with the General Assembly to protect our schools from this joint Trump-DeVos-Hogan privatization agenda," said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the statewide teachers union.
DeVos, a charter school champion, was confirmed as U.S. secretary of education Tuesday on a rare tie vote in the U.S. Senate that was broken by Vice President Mike Pence.
For months, Democrats in Maryland have tried to link Hogan to Trump. The governor said he wrote in his father, former Rep. Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., instead of voting for Trump in the general election. He has avoided commenting on the Republican president's actions.
Weller criticized Hogan's plans to increase the amount of tax dollars used to help poor children afford a seat in private schools, as well as to set up a new state panel that would approve applications to open new charter schools, an authority currently held by local school boards.
"Maryland public schools are now at great risk of privatization as Governor Hogan continues his record of putting private and charter schools before public schools," said Weller, who was flanked at a news conference by more than two-dozen Democratic lawmakers.
A spokesman for Hogan said providing a quality education for all Maryland children is a top priority and noted he has provided "record funding" for public schools.
"The governor believes every child in the state deserves a chance to attend a great school no matter where they happen to grow up," said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the governor. "Our administration will continue to support all kinds of educational options, including traditional public, nonpublic, charter and innovative ideas like P-TECH schools."
Pathways in Technology Early College High School programs combine traditional high school classes with college coursework and internships to prepare students for careers in technology fields. The first two P-TECH programs began this school year in Baltimore.
Mayer suggested Democratic lawmakers and the teachers union are more interested in preserving the status quo than reforming education.
"They just want to keep everything the same," he said.
The teachers union and Democrats rattled off a list of bills they plan to pass and Hogan efforts they plan to defeat this General Assembly session.
They're proposing a bill that would prevent the state from looking to school privatization as a way to comply with a federal law requiring turnaround plans for poor-performing schools.
Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, said privatization advocates might use the federal law — known as the Every Student Succeeds Act — as an opportunity to "hijack" the public school system.
His bill would not allow for neighborhood schools to be turned into charter schools, for vouchers to be issued to send kids to private schools or for the hiring of a for-profit company to manage schools to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Luedtke said "the state could incentives districts to abandon their schools and privatize. We can't let that happen."
The Democrats also are mobilizing to block Hogan's proposal to help charter schools by, among other things, creating a new state board that will review and authorize new charter schools to open. Critics say Hogan can stack the panel with allies who will allow a flood of new charter schools that will siphon funding from public schools.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee that handles education issues, called the governor's charter school proposal a "charter school fraud bill."
Carter said the new state charter school panel would be "unaccountable" for its decisions.
The lawmakers compared Hogan's plan to charter school programs in Michigan and Ohio, where they said there were problems. Mayer said Hogan's charter school bill is modeled on the program in Washington, D.C., which he noted is led by Democrats.
"The last time I checked, I didn't think the folks standing at the press conference thought the city leadership of Washington, D.C. was radical," Mayer said.
The Democratic lawmakers said they will oppose Hogan's promise to gradually increase funding for a private school scholarship program known as Broadening Options & Opportunities for Students Today or BOOST from $5 million to $10 million.
Created last year with the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, BOOST helped pay for more than 1,900 children to attend private schools.
Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he now has reservations about BOOST because nearly 80 percent of the children in the program were already enrolled in private schools. He questioned whether the private schools might be using state aid instead of their own financial aid.
Maryland Policy & Politics
The Democrats plan to restore funding for two programs that were created last year, but eliminated in Hogan's proposed budget.
One is a mentoring and college scholarship program called Next Generation Scholars, while the other is a program that offers summer enrichment opportunities for students in poor school districts.
And the Democrats will also support a bill to limit standardized testing to no more than 2 percent of instructional time, about 20 hours per year.
On that item, at least, there may be some common ground.
"The governor definitely thinks there's too much testing," Mayer said. "We'd love to work with them on that."