Democrats intend to override Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s veto of a 10-year multibillion-dollar education reform effort, but it may not happen until the middle of the General Assembly session.
Known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the monumental bill aims to rebuild the state’s public school system through modified funding formulas and expanded programs recommended by the so-called Kirwan Commission, so that all Marylanders have access to a world-class education.
More specifically, the legislation would expand pre-kindergarten programs and funding for schools with high concentrations of poverty, increase pay and career opportunities for teachers, create new career pathways for high schoolers who don’t plan to attend college, and institute an accountability board to ensure that the government and school districts properly implement the Blueprint plan.
Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override the bill, but the House will probably not meet for floor votes until mid-February, said Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), a co-sponsor of the bill. And because it takes 30 days for a bill to become law after a veto override, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future may not take effect until the end of session.
Even if the veto is successfully overridden this session, Hogan is not mandated to fund the bill until fiscal year 2023, which begins on July 1, 2022.
Because of the one-year delay, lawmakers will have to tweak the 10-year Blueprint implementation timeline, as well as adjust some policies to account for how the pandemic has afflicted some students more than others.
“There’s the Kirwan override just to get back on track and put that bill in place, but there’ll also be a separate bill to deal with making up for [students’] learning loss for the last 12 months,” said Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), a co-sponsor of the bill.
The impact of Hogan’s veto
Because the bill was precisely written under the assumption that it would take effect last year, lawmakers will have to make technical changes, at the very least, to the timeline of the Blueprint’s implementation.
According to a related bill that passed in 2019, Hogan is mandated to put $500 million into the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Fund (the funding source for education reform). But because Hogan vetoed the 2020 Blueprint bill (which included specific funding formulas that would have directed the state how to use the money), he has full discretion as to how he wants to allocate that funding.
Whether or not Hogan voluntarily funds the programs as directed in the Blueprint bill in 2022 will affect what adjustments are needed in the Blueprint implementation timeline, Pinsky said. If he does not use the funds as expected, more timeline changes will be required.
“If the governor doesn’t voluntarily put the money in for the purposes we directed in the blueprint, then we’re going to have to push everything back a year, and we would have lost a year because of the veto,” he said.
However, advocates argue that not all dates have to be pushed back by a year. Given the disparities that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, advocates say that students cannot afford to wait another year for programs mandated by the bill, especially family support centers, community schools and behavior support centers.
“None of the components of the Blueprint have been rendered irrelevant by this pandemic,” said Shamoyia Gardiner, deputy director for Strong Schools Maryland, a grass-roots organization that supports the Blueprint bill. “Entire communities are still struggling to recover because individual working family members don’t have childcare access and childcare providers are not being supported.”
For example, the Blueprint bill includes funding for three family support centers, known as “Patty centers,” per year. This could either be pushed back by a year or lawmakers could take into consideration the closure of childcare centers as a result of the pandemic and adjust the timeline so that Patty centers can come online as soon as possible, Gardiner said.
Any delay in the Blueprint implementation timeline would also threaten the sustainability of “community schools,” or public schools that have an administrator who is responsible for coordinating services that mitigate non-academic factors that get in the way of students’ success, such as establishing school-based health centers or behavioral health services.
These community schools are already on the ground in districts like Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, Gardiner said. “It leaves folks wondering whether this is going to be yet another program that the state starts to implement and then withdraws funding from,” she said.
In all, any technical adjustments to the Blueprint bill must maintain the integrity of the Kirwan Commission recommendations, which were designed to ensure equitable and adequate funding and do not unnecessarily delay critical programs within the bill such as tutoring, said Shanetta Martin, interim education policy assistant director of Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore.
COVID-19 may necessitate companion legislation
In addition to technical changes that may be necessary to the Blueprint legislation, the pandemic has raised other issues that are not adequately addressed in the original bill. This includes increased learning loss, reduced enrollment numbers and the digital divide.
There will be a separate bill, which Pinsky calls “Kirwan 2.0,” that will deal with the more immediate crisis in education from the pandemic.
For instance, students who were already a year or two behind have only fallen further behind in the past year. “That’s one of the questions we’ll be asking: How do you make up for the losses of the last 12-15 months?” Pinsky said. A major tutoring plan and additional summer school programs are some ways to make up for the massive learning loss, he said.
Another significant impact of the pandemic is lower enrollment numbers, either because students did not attend classes virtually or because they transitioned to homeschool or private schools. The funding formulas in the Blueprint bill are based on these enrollment numbers.
“You don’t want to penalize the 24 school systems for something that was beyond their control,” Pinsky said. “We don’t want to create phantom numbers, but by the same token, they shouldn’t be penalized.”
Improving connectivity and broadband access is also high on the agenda alongside efforts to override the Blueprint veto, said House Ways and Means Chairwoman Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), a co-sponsor of the bill.
As it became clearer in the final days of the abbreviated 2020 legislative session that COVID-19 would most likely provoke an economic downturn, the Senate quickly added a provision to the bill to pause the expanded programs within the legislation if state revenues dropped by 7.5% per year.
However, the Board of Revenue Estimates found only a 2.1% decrease between March and December 2020, so even if the Blueprint bill was in law, the 7.5% threshold was never reached, according to Rachel Hise, a policy analyst from the Department of Legislative Services.
There is enough funding for the Blueprint bill
The Senate Republican Caucus is concerned about the fiscal implications of the Blueprint legislation, said Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick). Even though several GOP senators supported the Kirwan bill last year, Hough said he is confident that his caucus will vote to sustain Hogan’s veto.
“There’s so much uncertainty, and in the middle of a pandemic, I think now’s the time that we need to be fiscally conservative,” Hough said. Hough was one of the Republicans who voted in favor of the bill last session.
With children in virtual education for nearly the past year, “Kirwan is a bit outdated,” Hough continued. “We need to refashion some of it to help parents who are who are homeschooling these kids.”
However, according to the Department of Legislative Services, there is enough money in the Blueprint Fund and the Education Trust Fund Lockbox to pay for the implementation of the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations through 2026.
This funding primarily comes from online sales taxes and gaming revenues. But there is also a chance that the General Assembly will override the revenue bills that Hogan vetoed last session — one that would mandate a sales tax on digital downloads and another that would increase the tobacco tax. Both are intended to help fund the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Fund. If the legislature overrides Hogan’s veto, these revenue sources will help fund the blueprint plan beyond 2026, Gardiner said.
In fact, if the General Assembly overrides Hogan’s vetoes of both the Kirwan bill and the two revenue bills, the state will receive even more revenue than if the General Assembly had sustained Hogan’s veto, according to a December report from the Spending Affordability Committee. This is because there is enough money in the Blueprint fund, partially fueled by online sales taxes, which have increased during the pandemic, to pay for the Blueprint through 2026.
The coronavirus pandemic has only underscored the existing educational disparities that the Kirwan Commission resolved to redress. More students are falling behind, especially in those in households without adequate broadband access or childcare support. Black, brown and low income students in particular are suffering from higher rates of depression and anxiety, Gardiner said.
Thus, advocates and Democrats say it is more important now than ever to implement the education reforms proposed by the Kirwan Commission.
“If we do not override the veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, we’re not setting Maryland up to recover well from this current pandemic,” Gardiner said. Investing in Maryland’s children go hand in hand in investing in Maryland’s future, Martin said.
“How could we not provide schools with the funding that they will need to help this generation of students catch up? How could we not do that?” Luedtke said. “It’s a moral obligation to these kids who have suffered as a result of our country’s failure to contain the pandemic.”