By andrei Blakely
ANNAPOLIS – A blizzard of education issues will hit the Maryland General Assembly when it convenes in mid-January, with school construction, class-size reduction, higher education and all-day kindergarten programs competing for funding.
Already, bills on public charter schools and elementary and secondary school construction have been pre-filed.
And Gov. Parris N. Glendening last week named higher education construction one of his chief goals for the upcoming session.
Balancing the competing, yet related, interests will be a difficult task for legislators, who also want the governor to fund some of their initiatives.
The state is in the midst of a “golden age of school construction,” said Raquel Guillory, Glendening spokeswoman. “He is the education governor.”
Glendening had pledged $1.6 billion when he first took office for construction of more than 13,000 classrooms over eight years.
The success of other education programs depends on building those classrooms, even though programs and buildings come from separate budgets. For example, to make all-day kindergarten a priority statewide, as the state Department of Education has called for, kindergarten classroom space must nearly double. The state also wants to reduce class sizes, particularly in the lower grades, something that also will require more space.
“We are generally in favor of class-size reduction. There is evidence now that reducing class sizes does make a difference,” said Pat Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teacher’s Association.
With all of the education interests competing for budget money, one needed program could possibly become a priority at the expense of another.
A pre-filed bill sponsored by Delegate Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore, seeks to create a pilot program that creates class-size reduction in six to 12 schools throughout the state.
Smaller classes have proven to create more teacher satisfaction and better parent-teacher involvement, studies show.
Ideally, there would be a maximum of 18 students per class, Zirkin said. Some jurisdictions have an average of 26 to 27 students.
“I harbor no illusions that getting this bill passed is going to be easy,” said Zirkin. “But I’m committed to going down there and continuing to push this issue.”
Legislators have also developed creative methods of funding their classroom space.
Delegate David G. Boschert, R-Anne Arundel, sponsored a pre-filed bill to use leftover lottery proceeds to help jurisdictions pay for school construction.
Another education issue gaining support is early learning. While some early learning legislation passed last year, sponsors of the programs will seek more financial support this year. The programs include all-day kindergarten and Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Education Enhancement Programs.
Delegate Mark K. Shriver, D-Montgomery, is hoping early learning funding is in the governor’s budget. If not, he may propose legislation to put it there, he said.
Shriver has stepped up lobbying efforts on early learning proposals, even bringing in Hollywood actor and director Rob Reiner in support on Wednesday.
Other early learning proposals have the backing of a group of Democratic legislators from all over the state. The legislators want increased funding for Judith P. Hoyer Centers, the implementation of all-day kindergarten and early childhood accreditation programs.
The legislators also want to establish a statewide credential system for early learning and to develop a public information campaign to reach families and child-care providers.
The governor is still evaluating such programs and their affects on children before he makes a decision, said Guillory.
However, Glendening is working to improve teacher salaries, a key issue in a state where a teacher shortage continues to worsen. And he is devoting considerable political capital to higher education this session out of a belief that all public education should be free.
“I believe as a society, we must move toward the day when the word (college) tuition becomes an anachronism,” said Glendening. “I think higher education ought to be free. I know we are not going to get tuition-free overnight.”