ANNAPOLIS-The future of Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s plan to cut class sizes will become clearer today when two such reduction bills get hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee.
The first bill presents the governor’s plan, which would reduce first- and second-grade reading classes and seventh-grade math classes to 20 or fewer students.
The second bill, drafted by freshman Delegate Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, calls for an 18-student limit for all core curriculum classes from kindergarten to the third grade.
The two proposals come at a time when some areas of the state already are suffering from teacher shortages in particular disciplines. The reduction bills, critics say, will just exacerbate the problem without simultaneous efforts to attract and retain more teachers.
Reducing class sizes was a major part of Glendening’s campaign platform on education. But the governor failed to include funding for a comprehensive plan in his 2000 budget. Delegates who sponsored the two bills said they hope to return attention to the issue.
If the General Assembly backs his plan, Glendening will find the money, said a spokesman for the governor.
Zirkin’s more ambitious plan could cost up to $128 million per year if all counties in the state participate. The bill asks each interested county to submit a class-size reduction proposal for approval by the state education department. If approved, counties would receive about $500 for each student affected by the reduction and about $40,000 for each new teacher hired.
Zirkin’s bill has significant support from 66 delegates, including the heads of the four largest delegations in the state. Even supporters, however, are skeptical about the cost.
“I don’t think there’s any way in hell to find that money,” said Montgomery County delegation chairman Kumar Barve, a Democrat who said he signed the bill to show general support for what he considers the most important issue in the state.
Zirkin acknowledged his bill would require reordering budget priorities, but said the issue merits such measures.
Glendening’s plan takes a more targeted approach to the problem because of budget concerns, said Don Vandrey, the governor’s spokesman. It offers grants to local boards that come up with their own plans for size reduction, but limits costs by focusing on only three classes.
“There are only a few key opportunities to really make a difference,” Vandrey said. “That’s why the governor has targeted grades and classes where good instruction can make a real difference to students’ futures.”
Glendening has offered nearly $2 million to Montgomery County, one of the few counties in the state that has already developed a plan to reduce class sizes. Howard County would likely be next in line if the bill passes, Vandrey said.
Zirkin’s plan would be ideal if the state had unlimited funds, Vandrey said, but it would be difficult to find enough money in the current budget.
A number of delegates who signed Zirkin’s bill said they also support Glendening’s plan. “I should be on it,” said Howard County delegation leader Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat, of the governor’s bill. “I just want to send a message that a lot of people are concerned with the issue.”
Zirkin would not criticize Glendening’s plan. He said he is not interested in a battle between the two bills. “Hopefully they can be seen as complimentary,” he said.
The two bills might ultimately be combined, Barve said.
Neither bill is likely to succeed without a simultaneous effort to hire more teachers, said Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the state education department. The state will have to hire to about 10,000 teachers in 2002 for the governors plan to work, he said. And with state universities producing only about 2,500 teachers a year, that may be impossible.
“It’s fairly obvious we also need to deal with making teacher salaries competitive and keeping teachers here in Maryland,” Zirkin said. “I just hope we can do both simultaneously.”