The Maryland Senate moved a step closer Thursday to overturning Gov. Larry Hogan’s order that schools must start after Labor Day, even as Hogan threatened to put the question of who should control the calendar to the general public for a vote.
After a protracted debate over the benefits and disadvantages of a longer summer vacation, the Democratic-majority Senate voted 32 to 14, along party lines, to preliminarily approve a bill that allows local school districts to set their own calendars.
Hogan (R) upended that practice 2 1/2 years ago, mandating that schools stay closed through Labor Day to boost businesses, give families more vacation opportunities and save on school air conditioning costs.
Educators say the decision interfered with local autonomy, hindered learning and made it difficult to preserve spring vacation and teacher training days while still scheduling a full school year.
“We have to take the politics out of it,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the education committee and sponsored the Senate bill. “Give it back to the local jurisdictions . . . they are closer to the people and the community. Let them decide.”
But Hogan cited broad support in public opinion surveys for a post-Labor Day start and said if the Senate bill passed, he would lead an effort to hold a statewide referendum on whether to uphold it. That option was last used in 2012, when Republicans forced public votes on laws legalizing same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants and a new congressional map.
To place a question on the ballot, the governor or his supporters would have to collect signatures from 3 percent of the total number of voters ballots cast — about 2.3 million — in the last gubernatorial election. The referendum would be on the ballot in 2020.
“We simply cannot and will not allow misguided and misinformed legislators and special interest groups to turn back the clock and ignore the will of the people of Maryland,” Hogan said at a morning news conference.
The Senate is expected to take a final vote on the bill Tuesday. If it passes, it would head to the House for consideration.
The governor said the legislature is trying to cast his order as “some crazy idea” after lawmakers failed to act on a recommendation from a 2013 commission the General Assembly created to look at the issue.
He said he plans to submit legislation requiring any jurisdiction that wants to open before Labor Day to put the proposal on the ballot.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who voted to create the commission, said he once thought that a post-Labor Day start was a good idea.
He now believes schools and school districts should be given the tools they need to improve education, including flexibility on start and end dates.
“Our schools are failing,” Miller said. “We need to get back to focusing on education.”
Several lawmakers said school districts, which are trying to build calendars to accommodate religious holidays, snow days, teacher training days and other priorities, have struggled to meet the mandate’s requirements.
Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) said Montgomery County wants to be able to accommodate religious observances for Jewish and Muslim students and teachers. Pinsky said some rural districts want to structure their schedules to accommodate student participation in county fairs.
He called the proposal for a public referendum “ill-conceived,” noting that districts had the authority to create their own calendars for about 50 years before the governor’s order.
“If the school board is making the wrong decision, remove them,” Pinsky said. “That’s the old referendum.”
Sen. Justin D. Ready (R-Carroll) said the governor’s order has boosted the state’s economy, and Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Worcester) said parents and teachers across the state like the idea of extending their summer vacation through Labor Day.
Republican lawmakers offered four amendments to the bill Thursday afternoon, including one that would have codified the governor’s executive order. Each was rejected along party lines.