Gov. Larry Hogan is pledging to veto a bill moving quickly through the General Assembly that would prevent Maryland from enacting controversial reforms for struggling schools.
The bill would prevent the state from creating a new district to govern the lowest-performing schools. It would also prohibit the state from converting them into charter schools, giving the students vouchers to transfer to private schools or bringing in private managers for the schools. Hogan favors such reforms.
"We will 100 percent veto it the moment it reaches the governor's desk," Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said of the bill.
The measure has already passed the House of Delegates by a veto-proof margin and is being debated in the full Senate. It is advancing at a rate that would give lawmakers enough time to override the governor's expected veto before the legislature adjourns at midnight April 10.
Supporters of the bill — including Democratic lawmakers and the state teachers' union — argue it would ensure schools are judged by more than just standardized tests.
Del. Eric Luedtke, one of the bill's sponsors, said it would prevent the state from enacting "heavy-handed, radical solutions" such as privatizing neighborhood schools or transferring children to private schools.
The school board met Thursday afternoon in an emergency session, where members expressed alarm that the board's authority would be usurped by the bill.
Board President Andrew Smarick said he believes Maryland would have the least stringent school accountability guidelines of any state in the nation if the bill passes.
He said the bill "fundamentally undermines" the work of the state school board.
Luedtke, a former middle school teacher, said the legislators are not unfairly infringing on the role of the state board of education.
"The legislature sets the general guidelines — which is the goal we're trying to do with this bill — and let the state and local school boards work out the details," said Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat. He described the restrictions in the bill as "guard rails" to guide the state board.
The bill would set limits for the state school board as it writes a plan due in September to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which governs school improvement. The legislation defines how the state would identify the lowest-performing schools in need of improvement, as well as which tools the state can use to help those schools.
Smarick said that the board has been working diligently on its plan to comply with the federal law, holding listening sessions and working with parents, teachers, local school board members and others. He raised concerns that if the bill passes and guides the state plan, it could be found unacceptable by federal education officials, putting at risk $220 million in annual funding for poor students.
Under the federal education law, the state must identify the schools that struggle most, including the bottom 5 percent of schools with high poverty rates known as Title I schools and high schools that don't graduate at least two-thirds of their students.
The federal law says those schools should be identified using a formula that weighs test scores as at least half of the measurement. The state school board has proposed weighing testing at 70 or 80 percent of the formula, while the bill being considered by lawmakers puts testing at 55 percent.
The other factors can include measurements such as absenteeism, class sizes and access to classes that prepare students for college or careers.
"We've lived in a test-and-punish culture and it hasn't closed the gaps" in achievement, said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, which represents the state's public school teachers. "We know kids are not going to test their way out of poverty."
While it's not known yet which schools would end up on the low-performing list, advocates on both sides of the bill believe that it would likely include many Baltimore city public schools.
Once schools are identified as low-performing, the local school districts are required to come up with improvement plans that would be approved by the state. If those plans fail to show progress after a certain amount of time, the state can step in.
That's where it's important to limit the state's potential actions, said Sen. Craig Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who is also a lead sponsor of the bill.
Actions such as turning the low-performing schools over to private operators or assisting children in transferring to private schools should be off the table, Zucker said.
The focus should be on helping public schools, not "looking toward privatization without having a for-profit company take over," Zucker said. "We're the state of Maryland, we don't want other people to come in and tell us how to do things."
Supporters of the bill have said it's aimed at blocking the "Trump-DeVos-Hogan privatization agenda," referring to Republican President Donald J. Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who is an avowed supporter of charter schools and vouchers for students to attend private schools.
Hogan appeared with DeVos at an elementary school in Bethesda on Thursday morning, an event that drew criticism from Democrats in Annapolis.
The bill also would prohibit the state from putting the low-performing schools into a new, statewide "recovery" school district. Proponents of the idea point to such a district in Louisiana as an example to follow, while critics say that district has not worked. The Louisiana Recovery School District oversees 59 charter schools, primarily in New Orleans.
In letters sent to the state school board, Hogan has supported creation of a recovery school district as one of the options for low-performing schools. He also has promoted the expansion of charter schools and financial assistance for students to attend private schools.
If the General Assembly passes a final version of the bill and presents it to the governor on or before April 3, Hogan would be required to sign or veto it before the end of the legislative session on April 10 — giving lawmakers time to try to override a veto.
"I really hope he doesn't veto it," Luedtke said. "What we're proposing here is pretty reasonable."
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.