ANNAPOLIS – Maryland public schools would be required to teach character education — honesty, respect, responsibility, fair play – under a measure pending in the Senate.
“It’s great to educate the mind, but unfortunately we live in a society today where in many cases we have 30-, 35-year-old single grandmothers being the head of a household,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, one of Senate Bill 754’s 13 sponsors.
Values sometimes aren’t taught at home, so the burden falls on schools to instill character, Colburn said.
The Maryland State Department of Education, which has funded character education programs in some school districts, generally opposes education programs mandated by the state government, said Renee Spence, governmental relations director.
“The state board was set up to be the decision-maker relative to education policies,” she said. The department has not taken a position on Colburn’s bill.
About 21 of the 24 school jurisdictions in Maryland already teach character education in some form, said Eileen Oickle, education department branch chief for middle and high school learning.
In 1996, five school systems – Calvert, Frederick, Baltimore, Baltimore County and Prince George’s – received federal grants to start character education programs, she said.
Since then, approximately 16 more school systems have been given small grants to establish programs in either individual schools or systemwide, she said. More money may be available for such programs this spring.
Each jurisdiction may decide whether to participate and at which schools, said Margaret Trader, assistant state superintendent for instruction.
“We really try to protect the ability of the local school system to make those decisions,” in light of the different needs in their communities, she said.
The bill will not require all school systems to implement the same program, Colburn said. Instead, it lists general principles, the same as those highlighted by the state education department, to be taught.
Emphasis is placed on what Colburn called the “six pillars of character” — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship — but without any political or religious references.
Young people must be taught respect, Colburn said.
“We have many students with a total lack of respect for anything,” he said. By disrupting classes, they make it difficult for others to learn, he said.
A lack of values education can also lead to drug and alcohol abuse, Colburn said.
“The lack of morality in our citizenry creates a menace to society,” he said. “The financial costs will be minimal, and the rewards for our children, our Maryland society, will be life-long.”