ANNAPOLIS – Del. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, said she didn’t want to put in a bill to mandate phonics as the primary way for public schools to teach children to read.
She said she had to.
“Believe me, this is the last place I want to be,” Jacobs told the House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday. “If the school board were acting fast enough, I wouldn’t have to be. … We have got to have educators be more accountable to the people they represent.”
Jacobs’ bill is just the latest legislative battle between the Maryland Board of Education and state lawmakers, who annually spar over school policy.
This year is no different: At least five bills mandating school rules and curriculum have been introduced, despite the board’s insistence that the legislature has no business interfering in school policy.
“We have a limited amount of curriculum and class time,” said state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick. “We couldn’t possibly respond to every demand made by the legislature.”
But lawmakers, like Jacobs, say that legislation is often the only way to prod the board to action.
“(The board) doesn’t want us legislating curriculum, but as a legislator I’m sent here to represent my constituents,” Jacobs said, expressing the frustration many legislators say they feel with the board.
This year’s most contentious fight is over a bill that would require state public schools to teach more about the causes and effects of the 1845 Irish Potato Famine. The bill has already been approved by the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.
Sponsors said they turned to legislation this year after a resolution last year urging teaching of the potato famine was ignored by the school board.
“There has to be more sensitivity on the school board’s part as to curriculum matters,” said Sen. Perry Sfikas, D-Baltimore, a sponsor of the potato famine bill.
Besides the potato famine and the phonics bills, the legislature is debating proposals to:
— Allow Anne Arundel County schools to opt out of the state requirement that high school students perform community service, 75 hours’ worth in Anne Arundel’s case, before they can graduate.
— Require that school systems set specific standards for moving students from one grade to the next, to limit so-called “social promotion” of children who are unprepared.
— Make school boards adopt dress codes for their faculty.
The last two bills, sponsored by Del. Tony Fulton, D- Baltimore, at least give local school boards the freedom to set their own standards in the areas mandated by the legislature.
“Local jurisdictions know what’s best for our children,” Fulton said. “It is inappropriate for us to micro-manage what they do. They’re the experts.”
Even though it has the power to mandate specific changes, the legislature has usually allowed the state board the freedom to establish its own standards and procedures.
That’s the way it should be, say some lawmakers.
“If I wanted to be on a school board, I’d run for school board,” said Del. Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery.
But other lawmakers disagree. And, although the General Assembly has never mandated any change in curriculum to the state board, lawmakers keep trying.
“Do we have to abandon our responsibility to the children of this state when we enter this House?” Jacobs asked.
She bristled at the suggestion that her bill falls in the same category as the potato famine bill, which she opposes.
“Teaching about Irish potatoes is a little bit different from teaching children to read,” Jacobs said.
Her bill on phonics was driven by “the concern that our children are not learning to read properly, and the state isn’t moving quickly enough to correct it.”
Jacobs says that phonics, where students learn to read by memorizing word sounds syllable by syllable, is a more effective than the state’s current method of “whole language.” That approach has been described as akin to language immersion, with students encouraged to read and write and with less emphasis on the building blocks of words.
Grasmick said the state is starting to retrain teachers to use phonics more in the curriculum, but the board still opposes the bill because of the state mandate.
Despite what lawmakers think, said Grasmick, the legislature does not need to pass a law before the board will take action on curriculum.
“Even if we may not support some legislation, it does help raise important questions,” she said. “They aren’t just ignored.”
That rationale does not satisfy lawmakers.
“People expect more of us and want us to act,” said Jacobs.
“We pay their (board members) salaries, and we have a vested interest in the children of the state,” she said.