ANNAPOLIS – Sponsors of bills that would have mandated school curriculum and policies are claiming victory, even though their proposals were killed by lopsided votes in committee.
The failed bills — requiring classes on the Irish Potato Famine and banning social promotion, among other changes — have prodded the State Board of Education to action, said lawmakers.
“They’re working much faster now, aren’t they?” said Del. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, who noted that the board is working to include phonics in the curriculum even though her bill to mandate it was killed.
Since Sen. Perry Sfikas, D-Baltimore, introduced his Irish Potato Famine bill, the board has been working closely with Irish-American groups to incorporate famine lessons in the curriculum. The board has also guaranteed that the famine will be included in the requirements for high school graduation that take effect in 2002.
The potato famine bill was approved by the Senate in early February before being killed on a 20-0 vote in the House Ways and Means Committee on March 23. The committee killed a companion House bill at the same time.
“At this point and time, it (the committee’s vote) is not important,” Sfikas said. “This is exactly what we would have hoped would have happened. We’re sitting around a table writing it into the curriculum.”
Besides the potato famine and phonics bills, the Ways and Means Committee killed a bill to limit “social promotion” of academically unqualified students. The bill, which would have made local school boards set strict standards on passing students from grade to grade, failed 13-7.
Another bill, which would have exempted Anne Arundel County schools from the state’s 75-hour community service graduation requirement, was killed by the committee on a 12-6 vote.
Committee members said they were uncomfortable having the legislature mandate any change to the school boards.
“The people who came to us were well-meaning,” said Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery and chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee. “Those of us in elected office see the whole picture.”
Hixson said that dictating even the smallest education changes statewide may not benefit all students. Groups should focus their attention instead on the local level, where many education policy decisions are made, she said.
“What’s good for Baltimore is not necessarily good for Montgomery County,” Hixson said.
Committee members shared her concerns.
“We don’t like to get politicians involved in the education process,” said Del. James Campbell, D-Baltimore, who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee on education. “Once you open it, it’s like a foot in the door.”
But the sponsors of the education bills disagreed, saying they have a responsibility to address the concerns of their constituents.
Some of the bills came about as a result of pressure from parents and special-interest groups who said their appeal to the legislature was a last attempt to make the school board listen to them.
“We’re already involved,” Jacobs said. “We’re involved in funding every single thing they do.”
The demise of the education bills is not remarkable in Annapolis, where lawmakers have historically tried not to meddle with school board decisions. But there is just as long a tradition of lawmakers trying anyway.
Politicians often introduce bills “knowing they’re going to be killed,” said Hixson. That allows them to go back to their constituents and say, “See, we tried to help.”
And sometimes just raising the issue can bring about changes, as it did with the phonics and potato famine proposals.
“They get coverage (of a bill) and see that as leverage” with the school board, said Hixson.