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Maryland Senate passes sweeping schools reform bill with amendments that would halt plan in bad economy

After hours of debate, Maryland’s Senate late Monday night passed an ambitious, expensive overhaul of the state’s public schools, but only after amending the bill to halt the plan in the event of an economic downturn or if it isn’t achieving academic progress.

Nearing midnight, the Senate voted 37-9 to approve the recommendations of the so-called Kirwan Commission, which proposed the $4 billion-per-year overhaul of Maryland’s public schools ― boosting teacher pay, expanding vocational training, and funding additional services for children in the poorest communities. Six Republicans, including the Senate GOP’s leader and top budget expert, joined their Democratic colleagues in voting for the amended bill.

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The legislature is rushing to pass the educational overhaul ahead of the early closure of the 441st General Assembly session, which will end abruptly Wednesday due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After the vote, the senators gave a standing ovation to Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who shepherded the legislation through the chamber.

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In an emotional speech, Pinsky told his fellow senators that his wife is in the “very late stages” of a battle with cancer. “This will be my Sine Die,” Pinsky said, invoking the Latin phrase used for the end of session.

Before the vote, the Senate adopted amendments that would limit the Kirwan reforms in the event of a substantial economic downturn ― which many predict the spread of coronavirus will cause. Under the amended bill, if state revenues drop by 7.5% in a given year, the Kirwan plans would be put on hold and increases to education spending would be limited to the rate of inflation.

The Senate also amended the bill to provide what members call an academic oversight “checkpoint.” In fiscal year 2025, if an oversight board determines the reforms are not being properly implemented or achieving increased student performance, the funding boost for schools would be halted. The amended bill says a future legislature would then be instructed to "take immediate action to adjust the formula and polices ... to achieve the goals” of the Kirwan Commission.

“We created an annual checkpoint of revenues,” Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat who is chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said of the amendments. “It sets out that if for some reason the accountability board determines it is not meeting expectations, the Assembly is going to do everything in its power to make sure it is implemented.”

Sen. Chris West, a Republican from Baltimore County, said the language in the amended bill isn’t strong enough if the policies aren’t working because it still instructs a future legislature to try to implement Kirwan Commission’s vision for schools.

“The pause at five years really isn’t a pause,” West said.

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 ― the formal name of the Kirwan legislation ― is designed to boost the state’s public schools to world-class levels by adopting strategies used in educational powerhouses, such as Finland, Singapore and Ontario.

The legislation stems from three years of research conducted by the commission, which is nicknamed after its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. A 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.

The legislation mandates the creation of an independent, seven-member “Accountability and Implementation Board” to oversee the overhaul. 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.

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.

Top Democrats are moving forward with a plan to 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.

Among the revenue proposals moving forward is a tax on digital downloads of products like music, books and movies, taxing digital advertising and increasing the tobacco tax.

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The Kirwan Commission legislation, backed by Democrats who control the legislature, has already passed the House with a party-line vote of 96-41. The House had rejected some similar financial and academic safeguard amendments, originally proposed by Republicans, that the Senate added.

Both chambers must pass the same versions of the bill for the legislation to be successful. If the differences in the bill are reconciled before the close of session Wednesday, it would advance to the desk of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Hogan has emerged as a vocal critic of the Kirwan bill, deriding the commission as the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission” and calling its proposals “half-baked.” Should he veto the bill, Democrats could attempt to override that veto during a planned special session in May.

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