The Maryland Senate approved a bill Tuesday that seeks to overturn Gov. Larry Hogan’s order that public schools start classes after Labor Day.
The bill, which passed 31-13, calls for returning control over school calendars to local school boards. The vote fell along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
The measure now heads to the House of Delegates. If the bill passes both Democrat-controlled chambers, the Republican governor has vowed to support a referendum effort to put it on the ballot for voters to decide in 2020.
Some supporters of the later school start have championed the policy as helping the state’s tourism industry, especially in Ocean City. But some parents have said they struggle to find and pay for summer camps or child care in the days leading up to Labor Day.
The bill represented the first intense debate in this year’s General Assembly session and the final vote came after several days’ worth of discussion in the Senate.
Democratic senators argued Tuesday that school boards struggled to meet the executive order’s requirements to start after Labor Day and end school by June 15 while also accommodating snow days, teacher training days, and religious and secular holidays. They said school boards should have more flexibility regarding when to start and end their school years.
“It’s not about starting school before Labor Day. It’s about giving local school systems the right to decide whether they’re going to start before Labor Day or not,” said Sen. Nancy King, a Democrat who served eight years on Montgomery County’s school board.
Sen. Dolores Kelley of Baltimore County said local school boards are in touch with the needs of their teachers and school families. Each county’s needs may be different based on factors such as how many days they expect to miss because of snow.
Local school boards “are looking at the needs of the particular school district and ought to be able to make a decision about the calendar,” Kelley said.
As legislators are challenging Gov. Larry Hogan’s order that forced public schools to open after Labor Day, Hogan promised he would send the measure to referendum for Maryland voters to decide if necessary.
Republican senators said reversing Hogan’s order defies public opinion. Polling has shown that about 70 percent of Marylanders support starting school after Labor Day — although the last public poll in Maryland was in 2016, right after Hogan signed the executive order.
Republicans also questioned the Democrats’ push for local control, noting that the General Assembly regularly forces mandates on local school boards.
Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Harford County Republican who is the Senate minority leader, decried what he saw as hypocrisy for Democrats to support local control on this bill while regularly pushing mandates on other issues such as testing, financial literacy and time spent in gym class.
“We’ve already set the precedent of mandating what we want the locals to do,” Jennings said.
Tuesday’s final debate in the Senate, which lasted about 30 minutes, avoided some of the pointed rhetoric of last week’s discussion. One Republican amendment would have required public schools to observe Harriet Tubman Day, which rankled Democrats who saw the maneuver as disingenuous.
Then the next day, a Democratic senator said the governor “should not have the right to stand on the schoolhouse steps and say: ‘Students, you can’t enter here before Labor Day.’” That drew a rebuke from Republicans who saw it as a comparison to southern governors who attempted to block public school and university integration during the Civil Rights movement.
Following the Senate vote, Hogan issued a statement defending the post-Labor Day start as a “common sense policy” that enjoys “broad, bipartisan support.”
Hogan said some lawmakers who voted for the Senate bill had in past years sponsored bills for a post-Labor Day start. “If that isn’t blatant, partisan hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is,” Hogan said in the statement.
Hogan also pledged last week to write his own bill that would allow local school boards to start classes before Labor Day, but only if they put the decision on the ballot for a public vote. That bill has not been introduced.