5 education bills to watch during the 2024 Maryland General Assembly session

There are two months left for this year’s General Assembly session in which state education officials are actively shaping policy, a departure from the education department’s previous passive behavior.

Most bills will be introduced this month if they haven’t been already. With hundreds of new ones to consider, here are five bills focused on education to watch.

Moore’s budget proposal

The Maryland General Assembly will decide whether to approve Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s budget proposal, which includes a $500 million increase for K-12 public schools.

The overall $9.2 billion in public school funding would cover all programs under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the state’s landmark education reform plan. The Blueprint is the largest future cost driver and is funded only through the 2027 fiscal year. As Maryland’s budget deficit grows, legislators are worried about its future cost.

State education officials have said ensuring that Blueprint programs are funded without reductions is their top priority. The state education department would receive an additional $270 million for its child care scholarship program, for which high demand has required additional funds. More than 21,000 families received subsidies to cover most of the cost of child care in the 2023 fiscal year, an increase of nearly 40% from the prior year.

The budget proposal also directs $2.3 billion to the University System of Maryland institutions and $4.8 million to double the state-federal match for land grant institutions at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which the U.S. Department of Education said last year has been underfunded for decades.

Moore said his long-term goal is to address challenges with educational equity, such as a 10% disparity in high school graduation rates between Black students and white peers, and a 20% gap between Hispanic students and white peers.

BOOST scholarship program

Maryland’s school choice program, called Broadening Options for Students Today, or BOOST, could be codified under a bill introduced by state Sen. Paul Corderman, a Republican representing Washington and Frederick counties.

If passed, Senate Bill 552 would include private school scholarship for low-income families in the state’s general fund each year, starting in fiscal year 2026. Funding would begin at $10 million in fiscal year 2026 and increase to $16 million each fiscal year after 2029.

The state-run program led to a contentious fight last session when both Republicans and Democrats, including Senate President Bill Ferguson, pushed back against Moore’s proposal to reduce funding by $2 million. This year, Moore earmarked $9 million for the program.

Parents and students in favor of the bill told legislators Wednesday that it would ease perennial anxiety around whether BOOST will survive another budget year. About 3,250 students received a private or parochial school scholarship during the 2022-23 school year.

Guaranteed admission

Senate Bill 5 would make all public schools in the University System of Maryland, plus Morgan State University and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, guarantee admission for freshman applicants who graduated in the top 10% of their class at both public and private Maryland high schools.

Sen. Malcolm Augustine, the Democrat representing Prince George’s County who sponsored the bill, said he was moved to write the legislation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that affirmative action and considering race in admissions was unconstitutional.

“What we have seen over time is that this policy, while not as good as affirmative action, actually helped the diversity of those jurisdictions and in some ways even increased it,” Augustine said of states like Texas and California, which have similar policies.

But opponents of the bill, including admission officers from the University of Maryland, College Park and Morgan State, have said the policy would account for two-thirds of its overall enrollment and that several Maryland school districts don’t rank students by percentage.

The top 10% of students from each high school wouldn’t increase diversity in college student populations, they said, because most schools aren’t diverse and the top-performing students are majority white or Asian.

Maryland Higher Education Commission

A list of recommendations to change the Maryland Higher Education Commission’s process for approving degree programs could become law under Senate Bill 1022, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Washington, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Baltimore County.

Several aspects of the bill seek to make the commission’s process for approving or denying higher education programs more transparent and uniform. It also aims to prevent institutions from duplicating academic programs that already exist at historically Black colleges and universities in Maryland.

In 2021, the state agreed to a settlement of $577 million with its four HBCUs as a result of allowing nearby predominantly white institutions to duplicate degree programs and putting the HBCUs at a disadvantage when competing for students and resources. The commission, which oversees all the state’s colleges and universities, made controversial decisions last summer for both approving and denying proposed doctoral programs.

Washington’s bill would require the commission to create a “program review process advisory council” that guides reviews of academic program proposals and modifications. Along with the commission, the Maryland Department of Labor and the Department of Commerce would each need a staff member whose job is to coordinate with the other agencies and collect data on regional workforce needs.

Community schools

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Created by the Blueprint, community schools are funded by Concentration of Poverty Grants that provide money and extensive social services to students and families. Senate Bill 161 and House Bill 200 seek to fix “cracks” that have appeared after two years of implementing the Blueprint, particularly around community schools, which state Sen. Alonzo Washington, the Democrat from Prince George’s County who sponsored the bill, called the “backbone” of the reform plan.

Currently, the Blueprint doesn’t allow school districts to use any funds from the Concentration of Poverty Grant on administrative needs until they have 40 community schools.

As a result, districts with dozens of community schools that haven’t yet reached the 40-school threshold have struggled to communicate between individual community schools, advocates of the bill say.

Anne Arundel County school leaders testified at a Senate hearing that school coordinators cannot balance administrative roles like managing grants and connecting with neighbors and students’ families.

The bill would tweak the Blueprint’s language to allow districts with under 40 schools to flexibly use 10% of their concentration of poverty grants on administrative and other costs that meet certain criteria. School districts with 40 or more schools currently can use up to 50% of funds on administrative costs and other support. The bill would also require state education departments to create a tool for coordinators to fill out their school’s needs assessment.

Baltimore Sun reporter Sam Janesch contributed to this article.