The Maryland State Board of Education took a step toward giving school systems a way to seek waivers from Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent executive order mandating that public schools stay closed until after the Labor Day holiday.
The board voted unanimously Tuesday to ask state staff members to draft guidance “that makes it clear to districts, charter schools and the public that the board intends, beginning immediately, to approve expeditiously requests for waivers from the calendar limits” set by the executive order.
Although the decision appeared to present a pathway for school systems to circumvent Hogan’s order, interpretations after the meeting varied about how far the measure went, how soon school systems could be granted waivers and whether there are legal limitations to the move.
Hogan (R) issued the order Aug. 31 in Ocean City, saying a longer summer break for the state’s public schools would benefit families and the economy. Under the order, schools must start after Labor Day and end by June 15 but also may seek waivers from the order based on “compelling justification.”
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said that regulations related to the order must precede the state board’s approving any waiver requests, and that there appears to be confusion on the board that he hopes will be resolved soon. Such regulations could take months to develop.
“Our office has been in touch with board president Andy Smarick and State Superintendent Karen Salmon, who both assured that the board in no way will approve waivers before regulations being submitted and approved, as the Executive Order directly requires,” Mayer said in a statement.
The board’s action involved waiver requests made while the regulatory process is underway, not only afterward, according to interviews with several board members and an audio recording of Tuesday’s discussion. One member clarified that point before the vote, explaining that “the regulatory process takes many months.”
“I don’t think we can wait,” board member Laura E. Weeldreyer said in an interview. “I want them [school systems] to have choices to tailor their school calendars to the needs of their students and families.”
Smarick said in an interview that he wanted to “get the ball rolling,” by getting a start on developing regulations and by giving more detail about waivers to school systems as they work to create academic calendars for 2017-2018.
“We needed to get the regulation process going and give guidance to districts about what this regulation process is going to look like and what happens next,” he said.
The board is seeking legal guidance about the board’s waiver authority in advance of final regulations, Smarick said Wednesday.
At the board meeting, discussion of Hogan’s order began with board Vice President S. James Gates Jr. expressing “great distress” that the independent board “is being directed directly from the governor’s office.” Although the governor is an important citizen, he said, “that doesn’t mean that we simply have to become a rubber stamp. And I think the process needs to be deliberative. If there are good educational reasons for this, then I think we should try to unearth those reasons. But the idea, for me, that this can be done by fiat, overriding our independence, is deeply and profoundly disturbing.”
Nine members of the 12-member Maryland state board, including the student member, are Hogan appointees. Tuesday’s motion was put forth by board member Chester E. Finn Jr., who was appointed by Hogan in 2015 and said he supports local control of calendar decisions.
Finn, president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote a blog item this month at odds with the Hogan order, saying he would expect to vote for “every waiver that’s requested” so long as the school district shows educational justification. It ended: “Sorry, Governor.”
Finn said in an interview that if districts want to apply for waivers and can show an educational basis, it makes sense to consider their requests soon, “as opposed to waiting until deep spring, when it would be unhelpful to those trying to figure out the next school year.”
Some Maryland educators have said that the governor’s order could pose academic challenges and worsen “summer slide,” when students lose what they learned in the previous school year and need time to catch up in the fall. Research shows that disadvantaged students are hit especially hard by summer learning loss.
Finn said he thinks the extent of a child’s learning time is a “very important educational variable” for school systems as they consider how to best educate students.
“Maryland has way too many disadvantaged kids who are not achieving enough in school, and for those kids, an extended school year is an educational option that should certainly be available,” he said.
Madhu Sidhu, a board member appointed in 2009 by former governor Martin O’Malley (D), said the board intends to establish guidelines and consider waiver requests in the next few months.
Sidhu said she does not agree with the constraints on the school year that Hogan’s order imposes. “We have to offer the schools the flexibility they need to do their jobs,” she said. “This squeezes them too much.”
If she could choose, she said, the school year would be longer, not shorter.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.