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Maryland House of Delegates approves historic, expensive plan to improve public schools

Democratic delegates Eric Luedtke, left, and Sandy Rosenberg talk Friday, March 6, 2020, during a House of Delegates debate on a bill requiring additional programs and spending in public schools. In the background, Republican Del. Mark Fisher of Calvert County implores lawmakers to support his amendment to the bill.
Democratic delegates Eric Luedtke, left, and Sandy Rosenberg talk Friday, March 6, 2020, during a House of Delegates debate on a bill requiring additional programs and spending in public schools. In the background, Republican Del. Mark Fisher of Calvert County implores lawmakers to support his amendment to the bill. (PAMELA WOOD)

Maryland’s House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved Friday night ambitious, expensive legislation that supporters say would raise the state’s public schools to world-class levels.

In a state where more than 60% of graduating high school seniors can’t read at a 10th-grade level or pass an Algebra I test, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill is designed to provide a historic boost to the state’s public schools by adopting strategies used in educational powerhouses, such as Finland, Singapore and Ontario.

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The legislation, backed by Democrats who control the legislature, passed with a party-line vote of 96-to-41.

“This is a world-class bill that will create an equitable education for all,” said Del. Alonzo T. Washington, a Prince George’s County Democrat and one of the co-sponsors. “This is not throwing money at a problem. This is making sure our families have the resources they need.”

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But the legislation also would impose a $3.8 billion annual funding mandate on state government, counties and Baltimore City without a clear way to pay for it. Under the legislation, state taxpayers would be required to cover about three-fourths of the cost, with the rest covered by local jurisdictions.

“This is a $4 billion program that does not have a funding source,” Baltimore County Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House minority whip, told her colleagues in urging them to vote against the bill.

The legislation stems from three years of research conducted by the so-called Kirwan Commission ― nicknamed after its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan ― which has studied school systems around the world to bring those ideas to Maryland. A Kirwan Commission report calls for dozens of additional programs, including expanding prekindergarten to more students; tougher standards and higher salaries for teachers, including a starting salary of $60,000; more vocational training programs in high schools, and more support for schools with high concentrations of students from poor families.

“What we’re trying to do here is change the trajectory of this state,” said Del. Gabe Acevero, a Montgomery County Democrat. “All of us will win when we invest in education.”

Democrats need to pass the bill out of the Senate by March 24 to be able to override a possible veto from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan this session. Hogan has emerged as the bill’s chief opponent, calling the legislature “reckless” for proposing the overhaul and attempting to rebrand the commission as the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.”

Democrats hold three-fifths majorities in both the House and the Senate, the voting advantage needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

During hours of debate Friday in two floor sessions of the House, Republicans fought bitterly against the bill, which they noted would cost taxpayers about $32 billion over 10 years. They tried unsuccessfully to add amendments that would block or limit the bill, including one that would have eliminated any mandated spending after three years if the programs don’t improve student performance.

“No matter how you feel about this bill, I do know every single member of this body wants our children to be successful,” said House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican. “If this plan is not working, we need to know. Not 10 years from now.”

House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, countered that the bill already contains robust accountability provisions.

The legislation mandates the creation of an independent, seven-member “Accountability and Implementation Board” to oversee the overhaul. Local school systems would be required to submit plans showing how they are implementing the law. In addition to scrutinizing how schools are spending state taxpayers’ money, the board would be required to study student performance and how well the policies are closing an achievement gap among students of different races.

“Everyone can agree we need accountability,” Luedtke said. “This bill already has the strongest accountability measures in the history of Maryland education.”

In all, 16 amendments, including 14 from Republicans, were voted down. The 141-member body has 99 Democrats and 42 Republicans.

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The House accepted amendments that would limit the financial burden on some of Maryland’s poorer jurisdictions. Officials from both Baltimore City and Prince George’s County had said the plans were unaffordable for them, with County Executive Angela Alsobrooks suggesting at one point that she might have to eliminate the police department to pay for the proposals.

Under the amended bill, Baltimore City would have to pay $170 million more toward public schools by 2030, down from an earlier proposed $340 million. Prince George’s would have to pay $183 million more by 2030, down from $386 million.

The amended bill would require Maryland’s government to pay more than $2.9 billion more annually to local school systems by 2030. Local jurisdictions would have to pay a combined $863 million more by 2030.

Each of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions would receive increased funding under the plan. But 10 of them ― Allegany, Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Dorchester, Howard, St. Mary’s, Somerset, Washington and Worcester ― would not be required to pay more in part because some of those jurisdictions already robustly fund education or have very high rates of poverty.

Under the amended bill, Prince George’s schools would receive the most new state funding: $724 million more annually by 2030.

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, Baltimore City would receive $613 million more by 2030; Baltimore County would get $323 million more; Anne Arundel, $162 million more; Howard, $129 million more; Harford, $102 million more; and Carroll, $52 million more.

The first three years of the state’s portion of the education overhaul are funded already, under legislation passed in 2019 that puts Kirwan programs into the budget for three years. But Kirwan proponents have yet to figure out how to pay for the overhaul after that.

This week, after lawmakers defeated a proposal to significantly expand the state’s sales tax, top Maryland Democrats said they were moving forward with an alternative plan: Cobble together revenue from nine tax bills to bring in more than $700 million annually for schools.

While that won’t fully fund the state’s share of the costs of the overhaul, it would cover the state’s portion through fiscal year 2026, according to projections.

The revenue package under consideration in the House includes: a tax on digital downloads of things like music, books and movies (estimated to raise $147 million annually by 2025); cracking down multistate corporations’ methods to reduce taxes ($139 million); increasing the tobacco tax ($79 million); legalizing sports betting ($30 million) and taxing luxury services, among other pieces of legislation.

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The Ways and Means Committee approved several of the tax bills on Friday night, sending them to the full House for consideration. If the House bills are combined with a Senate proposal to tax digital advertising ― estimated to raise $250 million annually ― the package would generate more than $700 million by 2025, according to projections from the Department of Legislative Services.

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The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill now goes to the Senate.

Senators already have been given copies of the House version of the Kirwan bill and Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, encouraged them to read through the bill and the changes that were made. The Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee plans to review the bill Monday.

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