Senate President Seeks to Enhance State Ed. Board to Prepare for Blueprint Reforms

By: Elizabeth Shwe

February 25, 2021

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Maryland lawmakers are trying to strengthen the State Board of Education in preparation for the sweeping education reform plan that is poised to become law next month.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) presented an emergency bill Thursday that would tighten the qualifications for state school board members so that as a whole, the board must have expertise in: antiracism and equity frameworks to make systemic change possible; students with disabilities; multilingual instruction; programs that enhance socioeconomic and demographic diversity in public schools; and implementing innovative education reform.

Ferguson voiced frustration with how the current state board has handled school reopenings. Last summer, Senate leaders hosted an education roundtable to urge state superintendent Karen B. Salmon for specific statewide metrics for returning to in-person learning, but were disappointed by what they characterized as Salmon’s lack of guidance.

“I think there were opportunities to engage, to help provide the context, not just advice, not just support, but provide the true framework for reopening safely to help school districts make those hard decisions to protect educators, but also ensure that families had access to in-person learning,” Ferguson told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee Thursday. “That wasn’t there this year, and I think it has been enormously, enormously challenging.”

“As we are engaging a brand new path on this blueprint, we have the opportunity to really be a bit more purposeful in the way that we structure our state board,” he continued.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future is a 10-year plan that would expand pre-kindergarten programs, increase funding for schools with high concentrations of poverty, increase pay and career opportunities for teachers, and create new career pathways for high schoolers who don’t plan to attend college.

This sweeping education reform bill was officially voted into law this month, after both chambers of the legislature overrode Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s veto. Because of the one-year delay, additional legislation addressing changes in the blueprint’s timeline is expected to come out later this session.

The blueprint includes a seven-member Accountability and Implementation Board, which would be responsible for developing a statewide implementation plan to guide education reforms. The panel can also withhold 25% of new state funding from counties each fiscal year until they produce reform plans that adhere to the new state law.

Since the accountability board has a symbiotic relationship with the state Board of Education, it is critical to enhance the board to meet higher standards, Ferguson said.

Senate Bill 785 would also require the accountability board and the Department of Legislative Services to work with a consultant to study the capacity of the Maryland State Department of Education, Maryland Higher Education Commission and other state agencies to carry out the blueprint plan. The board must submit a final report of its findings to the governor and General Assembly by September 2022.

State school board President Clarence Crawford said he supported Ferguson’s bill but asked for amendments “to create the necessary flexibility to respond to…’black swan’ type changes that could occur.”

He asked to include additional board member expertise in mental and physical health programs, digital learning, experience on a local school board, as well add a Maryland resident who represents taxpayers. Crawford also proposed that a nationally recognized entity be chosen by the board to help bring credibility and support to the state superintendent as they make changes to implement the blueprint plan.

Currently, the state board of education has 13 regular members, one student member, one teacher and one parent member appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. This bill would require at least 11 regular members with specific expertise.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) floated the idea that the Senate president and speaker of the House also appoint board members alongside the governor, since the board is making the consequential decision of hiring the next superintendent of schools.

Ferguson said that he had considered adding legislative appointments but then pulled back because “this is not a political effort,” he said. “This is not about who’s in office now, who’s in these positions now. This is about…how we set the system up to be most effective.”

Senate Bill 785 had no oral or written opposition.

Two other proposed bills — one sponsored by Kagan and another sponsored by Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s) — would require Senate confirmation for the state superintendent, who is currently chosen solely by school board members.

Washington’s measure would also prohibit those who have been board members in the year immediately preceding the appointment to be nominated for state superintendent.

Nearly one-quarter of Maryland’s budget is allocated for education, which is the largest portion of the state budget, Washington said in a committee hearing earlier this month. “It’s crucial that we have checks and balances to make sure that no one branch of government has too much say in how the money is spent.”

Kagan’s bill will be heard before the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee on Wednesday.