Just before the U.S. Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos Tuesday, Democrats in Annapolis held a press conference tying Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to the controversial new education secretary.
House Speaker Michael Busch took aim at Hogan’s proposed independent Maryland Public Charter School Authority.
“The idea that somehow you're going to have a special school board for charter schools makes absolutely no sense,” he said.
The entity would oversee and disperse money to the privately run but taxpayer-funded schools. It would make opening charter schools easier by allowing them to bypass local school boards, and it would give the schools more autonomy from the existing public school system.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who leads the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said taking the power to authorize and govern charter schools away from local school boards would be “unconscionable.” She said it would leave the schools without anyone holding them accountable.
“And if [Hogan] did his research and history, he would understand that it was a recipe for fraud and failure,” Conway said. “It didn’t work in Michigan, it didn’t work in Ohio, and we’re definitely not going to have it in the state of Maryland.”
The group of Democratic legislators and teachers union representatives also criticized Hogan’s proposal to expand a program that awards publicly funded scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools. The current year’s budget includes $5 million for the program, and the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year increases that to $7 million.
Critics of the program point to data showing that most of the scholarships went to students who were already attending private schools. By mid-October 2016, 2,449 students had received scholarships. Of those, 549 — about 22 percent — went to public school the year before.
“Our philosophy was that it was to go to kids to be able to afford that, not to kids that were already getting scholarships to afford those schools,” Busch said.
The concern, he explained, is that private schools are using the state funds to replace scholarships they already offered. He said the state should wait to increase the size of the program until officials can evaluate whether it’s working as intended.
But that’s the wrong approach, said Doug Mayer, spokesman for Hogan.
“Go talk to those parents. Go talk to those kids,” Mayer said. “The governor receives thank-you cards from kids who are saying that these schools have changed their lives.”
Even scholarships that went to students already in private schools make it easier for those students to remain in those schools, he said.
At Tuesday’s press conference, both the scholarship program and the proposed charter school expansion became fodder to tie Hogan to the Trump administration.
“Educators must work with the General Assembly to protect our schools from this joint Trump-DeVos-Hogan privatization agenda,” said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association teachers union.
But Mayer said both proposals are about giving families more options.
“You get over the top and completely illogical rhetoric from a group of people who do basically anything the teachers union wants them to do,” he said, referring to the legislators at the press conference.
In addition to the criticism of Hogan’s policies, the Democratic lawmakers also offered a few proposals of their own on Tuesday.
One would limit standardized testing to 20 hours a year, or about 2 percent of instructional time. The bill passed the House last year but stalled in Conway’s committee in the Senate.
Another bill would govern Maryland’s adoption of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act while preventing the sort of charter school and tuition voucher programs Hogan is backing.
Both bills are priorities for the Maryland State Education Association.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, promised to restore funding for school programs Hogan cut from his budget. One program offers after-school and summer enrichment programs. The other helps guide middle school students from low-income families to college and offers them scholarships for when they get there.
“That is money that is targeted to not just Baltimore City, not just Prince George’s County, but eight counties where there are concentrations of poverty in those school districts,” McIntosh said.
But since McIntosh can’t add money to the bottom line in the state’s budget, Mayer questioned which programs the Appropriations Committee will cut to find the money.