Summer break could end in August this year for some Maryland students after the General Assembly took a significant step Wednesday toward undoing Gov. Larry's Hogan's 2016 order that public schools begin their academic year after Labor Day.
The Maryland House of Delegates followed the state Senate in approving a bill returning power to local school boards to decide when the school year begins.
The Democratic majority of lawmakers still must reconcile some details of the legislation. But because both chambers passed the legislation by margins large enough to override a Hogan veto, the governor was left with little to counter the latest blow in a years-long political fight over school calendars.
In a statement Wednesday night, he called the House vote “politics at its worst” and, as the bill heads back to the Senate for final approval, asked members of that chamber to block it.
At the same time, some school district officials prepared to consider revising calendars for the 2019-2020 school year, which were approved last fall.
As Democrats seek to override his executive order forcing Maryland’s public schools to wait until after Labor Day to start classes, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan pledged Wednesday to fight back with a referendum.
Some districts have openly opposed Hogan’s edict, with Anne Arundel County officials complaining that it cut into time for spring break and parent-teacher conferences.
Baltimore schools officials said Wednesday they would explore whether any tweaks “could benefit students and staff.”
“Should this legislation become law, at minimum it will improve the district’s ability to schedule for snow days without needing to remove important opportunities for teacher professional learning or infringe on holiday breaks,” city schools spokeswoman Anne Fullerton said in a statement.
Hogan issued the executive order with the support of the state’s tourism industry, and Ocean City in particular. On Wednesday, the resort town’s mayor called the General Assembly’s actions “disappointing.” He said that since 2016, hotels had noticed more vehicles with Maryland license plates than normal for the final days of August and going into Labor Day.
“This could have been very, very successful,” Mayor Rick Meehan said. “We thought that the change was beneficial economically, not just for Ocean City, but other resort areas in the state.”
Hogan and House Republican leaders accused Democrats of political jockeying, noting that a state commission recommended starting school after Labor Day and former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley once expressed support for the idea.
“Now, this popular idea is being threatened by out-of-touch politicians and special interests,” Hogan said. “Members of the Maryland Senate should heed the calls of the overwhelming majority of Marylanders — reject this legislation and repudiate this thinly veiled attempt to manipulate the will of our citizens.”
But critics of the post-Labor Day mandate have said it harms poor children who can’t afford to use extra summer vacation to travel or attend camps and who rely on free or reduced meals at schools. In Baltimore, Superintendent Sonja Santelises has said she is concerned that the additional week of summer leaves students vulnerable to violence.
“A large portion of our children live in poverty, and don’t have any vacation,” said Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association.
Bost said the state teachers’ union is glad the bill is moving forward because it believes local school boards should design the calendars for their communities with input from the public.
The governor’s initiative, she said, put tourism ahead of education. She also said research has shown children without a lot of activities over the summer often don’t retain what they learned over the previous school year, so making summer longer exacerbates that problem.
School districts set academic calendars nearly a year in advance, offering them up to parents, teachers and staff for comment on the first and last days of school, holidays, professional development days and potential snow days.
Since Hogan’s executive order, that process has gotten trickier. It requires schools to start after Labor Day, finish by June 15, and fit in 180 days of instruction. In many districts, spring break was shortened to a three-day weekend and students attend classes on President’s Day and Easter Monday. In some cases, officials have reduced the number of professional development days, where students stay home while teachers receive training.
Under the Hogan order, Maryland public schools were set to begin the 2019-2020 school year Sept. 3, and likely not until Sept. 8 for the 2020-2021 school year.
The bill delegates approved Wednesday would immediately grant school districts the power to start earlier.
While most school districts around the region did not respond to questions about possible calendar changes Wednesday, some acknowledged they are prepared to take advantage of any flexibility.
Howard County schools Superintendent Michael J. Martirano and the county school board “have always been advocates for local control of the academic calendar,” Howard schools spokesman Brian Bassett said. He added that the county school board would have to approve any calendar changes, but did not say whether any might be imminent.
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.
There are still details to be worked out before the legislation can be sent to Hogan’s desk.
State delegates passed the bill as emergency legislation, meaning it would take effect immediately. Senators approved a version that would become effective July 1. It’s up to the Senate to concur with the House’s version or for members of both chambers to resolve the details in a conference committee before sending the legislation to the governor.
Hogan has said that if lawmakers acted to counter his executive order, he would push to send the matter to voters to decide in a referendum.
Late last month, he proposed constitutional amendments to that effect in both chambers of the General Assembly, but lawmakers have not acted on either. The amendment legislation would have to clear the rules committee in each chamber before advancing to the normal legislative process, with less than a month remaining in the legislature’s annual 90-day session.
If a referendum does advance, Republicans accused Democrats of injecting politics into that process, as well. A provision attached to the bill the House passed Wednesday spells out the language that would appear on sample ballots if any school calendar referendum is presented to voters.
While House officials said Maryland’s secretary of state and attorney general’s office would still be responsible for the language of any ballot question itself, House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga said the move amounted to “rigging the system.”