Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan triggered one of the biggest firestorms of his tenure last week when he ordered schools to start classes after Labor Day beginning next year.
It was at least the third time Hogan has sidestepped the Democratic-controlled legislature to enact a proposal that plays well with the public but could raise challenges down the road.
Extending summer vacation may boost the first-term Republican’s already high popularity, analysts say, given that polls show large majorities of Marylanders favor the move. The governor’s action also gives him a new opportunity to publicly battle with Democratic legislative leaders, who have killed past attempts to mandate a post-Labor Day return to school because of concerns from school officials and teachers unions about test prep, snow days and limiting summer learning loss.
“It’s vintage Hogan,” said Todd Eberly, political science professor at St. Mary’s College, of the governor’s habit of enacting popular ideas that leave Democratic leaders angry over his “my-way-or-the-highway approach” and squirming over the best way to respond.
Last year, Hogan unilaterally reduced tolls on the state’s highways and closed a troubled jail in Baltimore. On Wednesday, he signed an executive order requiring local districts to start schools after Labor Day and complete the mandated 180-day school year by June 15.
What worked for him as a schoolboy and for many other adults in Maryland, he said, should work for today’s youth, too.
Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, said Hogan had little to lose in issuing the directive — especially since concern about testing, summer learning loss and minimizing child-care costs is focused in more urban parts of the state, where the governor’s support is weakest.
“Suburban families are part of his constituency, so I think it’s probably a calculated risk he’s taking that it’s going to have little political downside,” Norris said. “Democrats are clearly going to go after him on this, using the rationale that it hurts poor children. But tinkering with the school calendar doesn’t strike me as something that is going to make or break anybody, particularly if schools have to maintain 180 days.”
Under current law, local school districts set their own calendars. State law mandates certain holidays, including Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day.
Although a bipartisan task force appointed by Hogan’s predecessor, Democrat Martin O’Malley, recommended a post-Labor Day start, the only one of the state’s 24 school districts to structure its calendar that way is Worcester County, home to the beach resort town of Ocean City.
School officials from other districts have warned that they may need to shorten spring break or make other unpopular changes to fulfill Hogan’s directive, which they say is primarily designed to boost tourism and economic activity.
School districts would be able to apply to the state Board of Education for a waiver from the new calendar requirements if they can prove that complying would be a hardship.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor took the action because it was “the right thing to do for Maryland students, families, teachers and schools. . . . He was tired of watching [the] majority leadership in the General Assembly [fail] to act on something their own task force recommended and that nearly every Marylander wants.”
Several Democrats have questioned whether the governor has the authority to make the change by executive order and have sought a legal opinion from the attorney general’s office, which is expected this week.
Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to figure out how to respond to Hogan’s effort.
“It’s certainly something that should have been built through consensus with the individuals that have a stake, meaning school boards, teachers, PTAs and educators, as well as members of the General Assembly,” House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said. “There might be a legitimate argument to this, but you don’t do it by executive order.”
Maryland would join just over a dozen other states where the state government, rather than local officials, sets the calendar, according to information provided by legislative analysts. Local school boards, superintendents and county officials — including two who are weighing a run against Hogan — are in an uproar over the possibility.
Hogan’s proposal, they said, could affect teacher contracts, disadvantaged students and students’ overall quality of education. They are vowing to push the legislature to reverse the decision.
“He didn’t quote any facts or stats that said our kids will be better off in terms of education for a move after Labor Day,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who may challenge Hogan for the governorship in 2018. “It was based on Ocean City and their revenues. That, to me, is ridiculous.”
But Steven Hershowitz, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, which has fought against a post-Labor Day start in the past, said the state teachers’ union does not plan to make overturning the order a focus of next year’s legislative agenda.
“We would be happy to see this action reversed because it’s bad policy,” Hershowitz said. “But when you talk about the biggest problems facing our schools, we’ll be asking lawmakers to deal with overtesting, lack of funding and bridging the opportunity gap” between affluent and poor students.
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County), who supports a post-Labor Day start, said he may not agree with the way the governor made the change but he understands why he did it.
“I hate the fact that it had to come to this,” Jennings said. “We’ve dealt with this bill many times in the legislature, and the legislature failed to move it. The governor is using the power he has to mandate what he thinks is right.”
Hogan is aggressively responding to his critics. His office issued a “Mythbusters” memo that was posted on social media, and his campaign has launched a petition against the “status quo” elected officials who want to fight a later school start.
He also challenged those who say public education would be negatively affected, arguing that children will receive the same amount of classroom instructional hours.
A supporter of Hogan’s action wrote on his Facebook page: “I went to school after Labor Day . . . and now I’m a doctor.”
Hogan replied: “Me too and I was able to become governor!”
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Senate education committee, said parents may react more negatively about the mandate if districts start slashing holidays, spring breaks and teacher trainings to meet the requirements.
But Mayer said there are other days that school districts can cut. For example, he said Anne Arundel County schools have 14 half-days off designated as “union service,” and Prince George’s schools close for a day to let teachers attend the state teachers union convention.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steven R. Schuh (R), a Hogan supporter who also supports the later start date, said “there’s a lot of politics” involved in the debate.
“The teachers union has immense power in the General Assembly, which may explain why the General Assembly has never moved on this,” Schuh said. “It took executive action by the governor because he’s willing to take the political heat to do what’s best for families and the economy.”