ANNAPOLIS – The state Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would require that state public schools teach about the causes and effects of the Irish potato famine of 1845.
The 26-18 vote came after lengthy debate on whether the General Assembly should be dictating curriculum, which has traditionally been the domain of local boards of education.
“If we begin to mandate education policy, I believe it takes us down a slippery slope,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. He said other groups would soon follow with similar demands on the curriculum.
“There will not be a teachable moment allowed in our classrooms,” Pinsky said.
But supporters said that the legislature must mandate the curriculum in this instance, because the state school board has ignored previous requests to include lessons on the famine.
“They have been monumentally unresponsive,” said Sen. Michael Collins, D-Baltimore County.
Senate Bill 16 is part of a campaign by Irish-American organizations in several states to highlight the famine and its effect on American history. Similar bills have already passed in New York and New Jersey.
Supporters said Thursday that the famine is one of many important lessons in American history that students need to be taught.
“We have so many Irish-Americans in Maryland and there are glaring weaknesses in what is being taught,” said Collins. “It’s a recognition of their culture and heritage.”
But opponents said many school boards already include the famine in their history lessons on immigration. They said that if the legislature mandates this part of the curriculum, it is setting a dangerous precedent.
Collins said the bill would not lead to further legislative involvement in school curriculum.
“I’ve never subscribed to the domino theory of legislation,” he said. “Just because we pass this bill this year does not mean we’ll do the same next year.”
The bill comes up for a final Senate vote Tuesday. Senators were reluctant to speculate on the measure’s chances in the House of Delegates, should it get out of the Senate next week.