Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic legislative leaders are likely to face off in January over education, a top-rated concern for most Marylanders, and could tangle over many of the same schools-related issues as they did in Hogan’s first legislative session.
It is unclear whether the two sides will come closer to forging agreement.
Hogan (R) has not outlined his 2016 legislative agenda, but a spokesman said the governor will continue to push for the same initiatives he sought earlier this year: a tax credit for businesses that donate to schools; an expansion of charter schools; and other efforts that offer parents more choice in how their children are taught.
“One of the things that the governor has said consistently is the discussion can’t be just about dollars,” said spokesman Matthew Clark. “It has to be about ideas.”
The tax-credit legislation, which would largely benefit private schools and is strongly opposed by the state teachers union, has failed in past sessions, including this spring, when it died in a House committee.
Hogan has blamed House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a former public school teacher and a vociferous critic of the tax-credit idea.
Busch plans to push Hogan for more money for school construction during the legislative session, which begins Jan. 13 and will run through mid-April.
Last session, he and other Democrats put together a legislative initiative that made an additional $20 million in construction funds available to school districts where enrollment is growing.
Hogan, who has routinely questioned the way the state’s public-school-construction money is spent, is unlikely to support pouring more money into the effort without more accountability.
“We’re open to discussion on whatever the administration wants to put forth,” Busch said after a news conference last month during which Democrats blasted Hogan for not releasing $68 million in school funding. “But [the governor] has shown no concern for the welfare and the benefit of the public school children.”
Despite such rhetoric, Busch indicated that there may be common ground between him and Hogan on what to do for struggling schools in places like Baltimore City, where an increasing number of students live in poverty.
Without offering specifics, Busch said he wants to consider “a comprehensive approach” to student populations with high poverty rates, which could mean some type of government help for private and parochial schools — a concept that Hogan has long supported.
“I think there is a lot of goodwill out there, and there are people trying to support kids that come from a challenging socioeconomic background,” Busch said. “Regardless of their affiliation, the state could play a role in enhancing their ability to educate kids from that type of background.”
Hogan recently allocated money for summer youth employment in Baltimore and for new bus service in the city.
Education funding will remain a focal point during the session, with Democrats and Republicans expected to battle over how much funding is allocated and to which school districts. But the issue that created the most tension during this year’s session — the funding of the Geographic Cost of Education Index — is not expected to be a point of contention.
Frustrated by Hogan’s refusal to release $68 million in GCEI funds that lawmakers allocated for school districts where education is more expensive, the legislature passed a bill in April that said the governor must fully fund that program going forward.
“You have all these school systems struggling, trying to make due without the money that they thought they would get,” Busch said. “There is no practical reason why the governor would take the money that was appropriated by both political parties and not release it to the school system.”
Betty Weller, president of Maryland State Education Association, said more than a dozen school districts across the state are still recovering from the financial hit they took when Hogan refused to release the funds this year. Democratic leaders hammered Hogan all year over his decision.
“It has cost us programs. It has cost us educators,” Weller said. “It’s cost us those things we talk about when we talk about quality education.”
Hogan could use his appointments to state and local boards of education to try to get around the Democratically controlled legislature and push some of his education initiatives.
He has appointed at least two members to the state Board of Education who support charter schools and share the governor’s concerns about the Common Core standards. Next year, the board will name a replacement for state schools Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery, who abruptly resigned this year.
At the same time, the legislature, which ordered a commission to study the number and frequency of standardized tests that students take, could consider bills on the topic. Reducing the number of tests has wide support and appears to be an issue about which Hogan and the legislature agree.
The state teachers union, for its part, wants to push lawmakers to revisit a 2002 state funding formula law that was intended to eliminate disparities between rich and poor school districts. The formula, known as the Thornton rule, applies to all school systems in the state.
Union officials said they do not expect changes to be made to the formula during the 2016 General Assembly session, but they are hoping to launch a conversation that would begin that process.
“The funding formulas that we’re working under are 12, 13 years old,” said Sean Johnson, assistant executive director for political and legislative affairs for the state teachers union. “We have more kids in poverty now; we have a changing student demographic; more English language learners, more students with disabilities, and the formulas need to be updated to reflect that.”
The union said it will continue to fight for full funding of education until changes are made to the funding formula.
“To have a great public school, students need a dedicated teacher, low class sizes and a well-rounded curriculum,” Weller said. “We’ll go after full funding because that’s how you get there.”