Opinion: Now Is Not the Time to Veto Our Children’s Future

Commission on Innovation and Excellence Chairman William E. "Brit" Kirwan, left, and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). File photos.

Across America, it’s Teacher Appreciation Week. This week in Maryland, a member of Congress and a county council are celebrating the educators and support staff who have worked selflessly on the front lines.

Before the crisis hit, these women and men were bringing children to school, feeding them, and providing instruction. Since the pandemic began, these professionals have distributed over 60,000 Chromebooks to empower students to learn from home, as well as over 1 million meals to children in need — in just one county.

This week something else has also happened in Maryland. Gov. Larry Hogan decided to veto once-in-a-generation legislation to make our state’s public schools world class at last. Citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shock that has only begun, the governor claimed he was only being fiscally responsible by vetoing the bill. While his concerns about the state of our economy are valid and sincere, his decision is misguided.

Students across Maryland have already lived with underfunded public schools for decades, and matters have only gotten worse in recent years. Before Governor Hogan took office, Maryland’s public schools were a source of pride and a shining example for other states. Two of our counties held the distinction of being first and third in America for public education.

Since then, we have sunk to the middle of the pack. Our state made national headlines as children in Baltimore schools huddled in freezing, unheated classrooms in winter, while even in the state’s most prosperous jurisdiction, a lack of funding and record enrollment have left children to attend class in temporary trailers.

The current pandemic has revealed deep, existing problems while creating new challenges for our schools and students. Children now are at home every day with parents who are either working or struggling with a labyrinthine and overwhelmed unemployment system. Most of these parents are of course not teachers themselves.

Educators are doing their best to retool their curriculum and teaching methods to provide the best instruction possible remotely, but even with technology, there are limits. Many children live in homes without the equipment or internet connectivity to be fully engaged in online learning. Though even for children fortunate enough to have a laptop and broadband, the risk of falling behind is all too real.

Before the pandemic, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which would make our state a leader in public education in America and the world by taking the Kirwan Commission’s findings from theory to reality. Legislators also passed a bill to restore and rebuild our state’s aging and over-capacity school buildings.

Coronavirus cut short the 2020 legislative session. Before delegates and senators decided to adjourn early, there were several bills in various stages of discussion that would have raised funds for public education fairly, sustainably, and responsibly. While certainly all were not guaranteed to become law, discussion ended as the capitol prepared to close. The Blueprint, which was the top legislative priority and the culmination of years of work by the Kirwan Commission, was passed in the 11th hour. Additional talk of revenue would need to be tabled until a special session could be convened.

Unfortunately, the pandemic shows little sign of slowing and a special session thus is unlikely. Yet the Blueprint’s reforms were funded, if only for the early stages. There was always adequate time to determine funding for subsequent years in the next session.

Ironically, Governor Hogan’s decision, made in the name of fiscal responsibility, is also a missed opportunity for economic stimulus at a critical moment. School construction and expansion would provide new jobs and aid in Maryland’s economic recovery.

Our students have the backing of legislators, county council members, and members of Congress. Sadly, the governor has chosen to stand against them. Despite the uncertainties we face, now is not the time to veto our children’s future. The General Assembly must override this veto.

— PIA MORRISON

The writer is the president of SEIU Local 500.