ANNAPOLIS – State school officials have agreed to review how the 1845 Irish Potato Famine is taught in the state’s public schools and to report their findings this month to lawmakers.
The action comes as school officials attempt to head off bills that would force lessons into the school curriculum on the causes and effects of the famine.
State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick met with legislators last month and agreed to the review in response to the bills, described by supporters as “a cruise missile fired across the bow of the board of education.”
The Senate has already passed a bill mandating instruction on the famine. Lawmakers said the House has agreed to hold off on its version of the bill while the state Board of Education studies the issue.
The bills would require schools to devote more class time to the 10-year famine that killed nearly 25 percent of Ireland’s population and led to massive Irish immigration to the United States.
Sen. Perry Sfikas, a sponsor of the Senate bill, said the famine is included in some history classes in the state but it is “uneven and inconsistent in how it is taught.” A statewide bill would bring uniformity to the classes and make sure the event is not overlooked, supporters say.
Similar laws have been enacted in California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
But Maryland educators say curriculum decisions should be left to the board, and they fear that the potato famine bill would open the door to more interference in the classroom.
“We need to consider this in a way that doesn’t open up the Pandora’s box,” Grasmick said of attempts to mandate curriculum.
She said a study of the potato famine issue will allow the board to address it without a state mandate. After the study is completed, school officials said, they will likely appoint a task force to review the findings and make recommendations.
“What we’re doing now is putting our efforts into writing,” said Grasmick.
Supporters said they would have no problem withdrawing the bill if the state board takes action on its own.
“As long as the result is what the community is requesting, that’s fine with me,” Sfikas said.
But supporters remain leery. A resolution passed by lawmakers last year on the issue provoked no response from the board and led to this year’s call for a mandate.
“If it can be addressed administratively, so be it,” said Jim O’Toole, a Harford County teacher and bill supporter. “If not, we’ll be back.”