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Senate committee sets education bill in motion in final week of General Assembly

ANNAPOLIS — In the final week of the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers have started to review a major piece of education legislation.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee tackled on Monday the policy side of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a bill that begins funding for the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations on how to redesign education statewide. Lawmakers are locked into spending $255 million — below the $325 million recommended by the commission — already approved in the 2020 state budget and on the governor’s desk.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a blank check. The state’s budget has to be balanced,” said Chairman Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) to the committee on Monday before it unanimously approved an amended bill.

Some committee members were frustrated, however, that they were seeing the bill after the budget passed and that they could not adjust funding for specific programs or qualifying criteria, which could bring money to schools on the cusp of eligibility.

That included a recommendation from the Washington County Board of Education to lower the threshold from having at least 80 percent — to 70 percent — of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals to be considered an “eligible school” for the state’s Concentration of Poverty School Grant program. Each eligible schools will receive nearly $249,000 in each of the next two fiscal years from the state to implement transportation, health, counseling and enrichment services for students.

Lowering the threshold would make an additional 16 schools eligible for funding, but increase the program’s costs by one-third, or approximately $4 million, Pinsky said. Because of language already approved in the state budget, the committee had no flexibility to move $4 million from other programs, said Rachel Hise, a policy analyst for the Department of Legislative Services.

Pinsky said in an interview afterward that while he was as frustrated as some of the other members when it came to financing, he still believes in the mission of the Kirwan Commission. Pinsky has served on the Kirwan Commission for the past two years.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future will put into law intent language and some base-level funding in 2019, so the Legislature can then vote on a larger bill in 2020 that outlines new funding formulas and educational priorities.

Joy Schaefer, Frederick County Board of Education vice president and member of the Kirwan Commission, said the bill is an important first step in changing the way education is funded in Maryland and shows the Legislature’s commitment to funding those changes.

“It signals the commitment on the part of the Legislature and the governor,” Schaefer said. “Just the commitment to fund the [full] reforms is one thing it does. While we’re working on the formula, it provides the resources for school systems to work now.”

A small working committee is expected to bring a funding formula idea to the full commission in the fall. The commission intends to bring a full funding bill to the 2020 Legislature, Schaefer said.

In the meantime, the blueprint introduces some of the commission’s recommendations: free full-day prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds; improved college or career readiness; increased teacher salaries and added resources for low-income students.

It also establishes an inspector general position that will investigate the Maryland State Department of Education, Interagency Commission on School Construction, and public and nonpublic schools that receive state funds for fraud, waste, abuse, violation of civil rights and enforcement of policies governing the prevention and reporting of child abuse.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) repeatedly criticized the Legislature for moving forward with the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations without an oversight body this session. The governor, attorney general and treasurer would have the authority to appoint the inspector general, though the committee voted on Monday to require Senate approval of the nominee.

An separate academic oversight board will be established in the 2020 bill, Pinsky said. Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) said it appeared the state was setting up the wrong oversight body first.

“When I think of accountability for what we’re doing, I want accountability of: Are we getting the educational outcomes we want? Are the right things happening, educationally? This just looks like an auditor with a law degree,” Young said.

“It’s just a big waste of money,” he added.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future was also assigned to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which will evaluate the financing of the bill. The House version of the bill will be reviewed by the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, and Ways and Means is also expected to weigh in.

Already, the Senate has added more than a dozen amendments to the bill, which means the Senate and House versions are unlikely to match at the end of the week. One chamber will have to concur with the other’s version of the bill, or a conference committee will need to be formed before the bill can be sent to Hogan.

To free up time for debate on the bill in the Senate, the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee agreed to reconsider a vote it took on Friday to ban the potentially harmful pesticide chlorpyrifos in Maryland. The bill will not advance to the full Senate, but will instead be reconsidered by the committee in January 2020.

This is the second year in a row where the bill to ban chlorpyrifos has died unexpectedly at the end of session.

“This is the second time this has happened, and that’s a bit disturbing for me,” said committee Vice Chairwoman Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore City and Baltimore County), who supports the ban.

Pinsky said he would encourage the bill sponsors to pre-file their bills to ban chlorpyrifos for next session and promise an early hearing to move the bill in 2020. If the bill reached the Senate floor, it could have delayed important bills from passing before Sine Die — the final day of session — on April 8.

“I understand there’s a bigger issue out there,” Pinsky said.

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