Public Education Is a Big Winner as the General Assembly Adjourns Sine Die!

And other legislative updates on MSEA’s Up the Street

Photo © Stephen Cherry


Public schools, students, and educators were big winners during the legislative session. It is exciting to share some of the good news and successes won with the support of great champions in the legislature and because of the incredible advocacy by members and coalition partners.

This document provides information on the final status of priority bills we were working and watching throughout the last 90 days.


The Protect Our Schools Act

With Maryland’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) implementation plan and new school accountability system in the balance, MSEA made the Protect Our Schools Act (HB978) our #1 priority for the legislative session — and got it passed. Last Thursday, the House (90–50) and the Senate (32–15) voted convincingly to override Gov. Hogan’s veto, a huge display of support for public education considering the overheated and partisan rhetoric coming from the governor’s office.

A team of legislative leaders made this happen and deserve tremendous credit: Senate Sponsor Craig Zucker (D-Montgomery, District 14), House Education Subcommittee Chair (and House sponsor) Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery, District 14), Senate Education Subcommittee Chair Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s-District 22), House Ways and Means Chair Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery-District 14), and Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Chair Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City-District 43). Their leadership will help hundreds of Maryland schools improve for the next generation of Maryland students.

Here’s a quick recap of what the Protect Our Schools Act does:

· Less Emphasis on Testing: The legislation limits testing-based “academic” indicators of success to no more than 65% of a school’s accountability score, below the 70–80% previously being considered by the State Board of Education and the near-complete dominance that test scores had over school accountability under No Child Left Behind. This will include a collection of factors, from PARCC proficiency and student growth to graduation rates and English-language proficiency. The bill also requires state officials to include completion of a well-rounded curriculum as one of the “academic” indicators, making the model even more balanced.

· More Focus on Learning Opportunities: The other 35% of the school score will be determined from three opportunity-based “school quality” indicators, one of which must be based on a school climate survey completed by educators, parents, and students. The other two could be anything from chronic absenteeism to class size to teacher certification rates, so long as it is not based on student testing. Each of the three measures must count for at least 10% of the entire school score — ensuring that these measures of a student’s opportunity to learn are taken seriously by school and district leadership.

· Increased Voice for Educators: For schools identified as low-performing under this new accountability score, the bill reserves three years for local stakeholders — including school-level educators and bargaining unit representatives — to implement evidence-based improvement strategies. That means the experts who work with kids everyday have the first crack at addressing the root causes of underperformance before the state steps in with top-down interventions. The legislation also says that no school turnaround plan can overrule an existing collective bargaining agreement.

· Prevents Privatization: With Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, and Gov. Hogan’s state school board led by some of the most prominent school privatization advocates in the country, there was no question that ESSA would be used to hand over low-performing Maryland schools to private operators — unless legislators stopped it first. That’s why the Protect Our Schools Act prevents the state from converting schools into charters, issuing private school vouchers with federal school improvement funds, hiring for-profit management companies, and creating a state-run universal charter “Recovery District.” It also prevents indirect privatization efforts by prohibiting an A-F grading system for schools — used commonly to paint public schools as failing — and the issuing of federal school improvement funds through a competitive grant process (instead, funding will be issued through a need-based formula).

Educators led the charge, but we could not have gotten this landmark bill passed without support from a robust coalition of parent, civil rights, and pro-public education groups. The legislation has received national praise from many education scholars and now sets Maryland up to be a national leader in progressive education policy. As President Betty Weller told press last Friday, “I really think that we are going to set a model for the country. We’re going to get away from a philosophy that has not worked, it has not closed achievement gaps, and we’re going to try looking at the things that go into the test score and not just the test score itself.”

Maryland’s ESSA plan will still be submitted in September, and we’ll need to remain vigilant to ensure that the State Board’s plan is consistent with legislative intent. The work continues to make sure we prioritize educator-informed strategies for improving existing neighborhood public schools.

The More Learning, Less Testing Act

Yesterday, the Maryland Senate unanimously approved the More Learning, Less Testing Act (SB452) by a 47–0 bipartisan vote, after the House of Delegates approved the widely-supported bill 139–0 last Thursday. The legislation limits mandated testing to 2.2% of the school year — or 23.8 hours in elementary and middle schools and 25.7 hours in high schools — except in eighth grade, when the limit is at 2.3% or 24.8 hours. The legislation, sponsored by House Education Subcommittee Chair Luedtke and Senate Majority Whip Roger Manno (D-Montgomery-District 19) now goes to Gov. Hogan’s desk for his signature.

According to Maryland State Department of Education data from last school year, students in 14 Maryland school districts took 30 hours or more of mandated testing. The average Maryland student takes more than 200 standardized tests during their time in school, taking away 250 hours from instruction. The More Learning, Less Testing Act would significantly reduce this over-testing by eliminating an estimated 730 hours of standardized testing across 17 districts each year. The testing cap goes into effect during the 2018–2019 school year.

To aid implementation, the legislation establishes District Committees on Assessments, bringing educators, parents, and other local stakeholders to the table to consider which district-mandated tests to keep, shorten, or eliminate. It also changes the state-mandated middle and high school social studies test into a performance-based assessment — an innovative, hands-on way of measuring student success beyond the traditional standardized test.

President Betty Weller released a statement upon passage of the bill, saying, “Educators applaud legislative leaders in both parties for coming together to establish a commonsense safeguard against over-testing in our schools. This means our kids will have more time to learn important well-rounded skills, and our teachers can get back to why they went into the profession in the first place: inspiring their students to love learning.” You can read about it in The Baltimore Sun.

Full Thornton Funding for Public Schools

Protecting full funding for public schools — as required by state law — is certainly a big win with Gov. Hogan’s record of proposing cuts to public education. After educators held the governor accountable for his funding cuts in 2015, he has stopped putting the Thornton formula on the chopping block. The legislature moved the governor’s original budget — and a supplemental budget that included $39 million to help school systems deal with declining enrollment and pre-kindergarten costs — to fully fund the Thornton formula and prevent another step backwards.

However, the Assembly did have to restore some Hogan cuts made to public schools — not to the Thornton formula, but to new spending — in the governor’s budget. The legislature included $6.5 million in grants for after-school and summer programs for low-income students, as well as programs aimed at reducing teacher turnover. They also included $20 million to help districts cover increased pension expenses, after the governor refused to release that funding last year.

Overall, the budget included an increase of $65 million for K-12 education over the amount included by Gov. Hogan in his budget proposal. The legislature also included an increase for school construction funding — $22.5 million more than Gov. Hogan’s request, for a total of $353 million.

All of this work — while an important success for our schools and members during the 2017–2018 school year — does not address the fact that our schools have $2.9 billion in unmet needs. That long-term problem is now left to the Kirwan Commission, a state panel of legislators and education experts working to rewrite the state funding formula to reflect higher rates of child poverty and higher academic standards. Thanks to a bill passed this session (HB516), those recommendations may very well include funding for universal pre-K. The Commission will meet every month between now and December, when it will issue recommendations to be considered during the 2018 General Assembly session.

Gov. Hogan’s Charter School Fraud Bill Defeated

Gov. Hogan’s second attempt to lower standards for accountability, equity, and quality in Maryland’s charter school law was defeated during the 2017 General Assembly session, with the House Ways and Means Committee voting it down 7–4. In 2015, educators worked hard with legislators and charter school advocates to find a compromise that preserved our strong law while also granting increased flexibility for high-performing charter schools. But this year, there was no common ground to find in the governor’s proposal — with elements seemingly straight from the playbook of Betsy DeVos. It included a separate charter authorizing board, the shifting of operating and facilities funding from traditional public schools to charters, allowing charter schools to hire uncertified teachers, and stripping away collective bargaining rights from charter school employees.

Educators quickly pointed out that these reforms are exactly what make other states so susceptible to fraud and waste in their charter sectors. In 2014, the Center for Popular Democracy found that more than $100 million of taxpayer money had been lost to charter school fraud, waste, and abuse in the 15 states they examined. As a solution, they recommended that any board that authorizes charter schools be made up of elected members — like a school board. But under Gov. Hogan’s bill, he would have appointed the separate authorizing board members and selected the board’s chair.

With the State Board of Education now blocked from using ESSA to compel districts into using their charter authorizing power to hand over control of public schools, Maryland’s strong charter school law continues to be intact. That means we can prevent national for-profit companies from taking over schools, although many of the non-profit charters in the state still send 5–12% of their public funding to national management organizations. Other privatization proposals, including bills to create private school savings accounts or create a state-run “achievement school district,” were also defeated.


Breaking Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

During the Fall 2016 MSEA Representative Assembly, there were two new business items aimed at breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline: one backing a ban on suspensions in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, and another asking for a commission to study the use of restorative practices in schools. Those ideas go hand-in-hand — keeping students in school while providing helpful alternatives to suspensions — and both were addressed in the 2017 session.

Thanks to bill sponsors Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City-District 46) and Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery-District 20), legislation (HB425/SB651) to prohibit the suspension or expulsion of students in pre-K through second grade — except if there is an imminent threat of serious harm to other students or staff — passed the General Assembly this session, in an effort to stop the harmful effects of such discipline policies for our youngest learners. According to the ACLU of Maryland, 2,363 of Maryland’s youngest students in pre-kindergarten through second grade were suspended out-of-school or expelled last year. Schools must now focus on providing student support systems and behavioral intervention plans.

Of course, we know as educators that banning suspensions without providing the training and resources for realistic alternatives is only a partial solution that sometimes causes disruption within classrooms. That’s why the General Assembly also voted to create the Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices (HB1287) through legislation sponsored by Del. Alonzo Washington (D-Prince George’s-District 22). The new state panel will make recommendations for how schools can better implement restorative practices to address misbehavior by students as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions.

Whistleblower Protections for School Employees

Directed by another new business Item passed last fall, MSEA has been working with Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s-District 47A) on legislation (HB1145) prohibiting school systems from punishing an educator for acting as a whistleblower. The bill specifies that educators are protected in reporting three areas of misconduct: (1) an abuse of authority, gross mismanagement, or gross waste of money; (2) a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety; or (3) a violation of law. This legislation passed the General Assembly yesterday and now heads to Gov. Hogan’s desk for his signature.


Eliminating the BOOST Private School Voucher Program

One disappointing aspect of the General Assembly session is the continuation of Maryland’s private school voucher program. Gov. Hogan’s proposal to increase funding for the privatization scheme did get cut by $1.5 million, but that still left $5.5 million for the taxpayer funded program that subsidizes expensive private school tuition at the expense of students in public schools. That means its funding remains essentially flat from last year (a $500,000 increase from FY2017).

The legislature was also unable to pass legislation that would prohibit private schools that receive public funding from discriminating against students or employees on a basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The fact that private operators objected to this bill is just more evidence that it’s inappropriate for public money to flow to these unaccountable schools. Phasing out the failed voucher program will be a priority for 2018.

Putting Teachers on the State Board of Education

In response to the stunning lack of direct stakeholders on the State Board of Education, Del. Eric Ebersole (D-Baltimore and Howard-District 12) — a former Howard County math teacher — and Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery-District 18) teamed up to introduce HB590/SB609, legislation that would put three current teachers and two parents on the Board. The three teachers would be selected through an election by their public school teacher colleagues, and the two parents would be selected by the governor from a list of three names submitted by the Maryland PTA. Just one of the 10 state school board appointments made by Gov. Hogan has been someone with experience working in Maryland public schools.

While giving parents and educators more voice in decision-making is a popular idea, the legislature did not move the bill forward this year. We’ll look to make more progress on it next session.

Teacher Arbitration Bill

An important school working conditions bill (SB760) that would give teachers the right to request an arbitration hearing — instead of a hearing with an officer hand-picked by the local school board — in suspension or termination cases cleared the Senate 32–15 this year but did not get taken up by the House. This would have given teachers a much fairer discipline process — a right that ESP members already have. It will be another priority bill for next year.


Educator Engagement Drives Successful Agenda

Whether it was a reaction to the 2016 election and nomination of Betsy DeVos or a comprehensive educator-driven agenda to reduce testing and protect public education, activism from Maryland educators is the reason we got those four big wins this session. In total, teachers and support professionals sent more than 42,600 emails, made more than 3,900 calls, and mailed more than 1,300 letters to legislators during the 2017 General Assembly session. Add that to the hundreds of in-person advocacy meetings with legislators — especially following the March to Protect Our Schools in mid-March — and it’s no wonder that our elected officials were deeply in touch with the pressing issues facing our public schools. In 2017, educator voices were heard loud and clear.

Join an MSEA GO Team

Even with these important wins, we know there are more fights ahead to ensure that our schools have truly adequate and equitable funding, high quality working and learning conditions, and that we stop the DeVos privatization agenda from coming to Maryland. To win on these and other critical issues, educators will need to keep standing up and standing strong for our students.

That’s why we’re organizing GO Teams of MSEA members who focus on statewide political, communications, and legislative campaigns. GO Team members will receive training for this important work and have access to association staff support, public advocacy grants, innovative campaign technologies, and more. GO Teams are based on two-year election cycles with the option to continue in the position based on association needs.

Sign up here to join the MSEA GO Team near you.