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Groundbreaking Maryland Education Reform Bill Passes in Midst of Coronavirus Crisis

We are all now focused on the virus that threatens to take the lives of millions all over the world and to gravely impact our economies as it does so. As restaurants close, events are cancelled, and businesses and hospitals prepare for the worst, legislatures are ending their sessions early, voting only on the most urgent matters and leaving all the others for another day.

That describes the scene in Maryland perfectly. The legislature had been scheduled to meet until April 6, but decided to end its session on March 18. That would give legislators time to pass the state budget and very little else. But the leaders were determined to deal with one other big item, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a massive education reform bill that, when fully implemented, would transform the state’s early childhood, elementary, secondary and career and technical education systems. The new design for the state’s education system is based on a three-year study of the top-performing education systems both in the U.S. and around the world and on a careful review of policy recommendations from NCEE that drew on the strategies used by the world’s top-performing systems, adapted to fit the Maryland context. 

You will recall in my last blog how I described the scene as the Maryland House and Senate committees met in an unprecedented joint session to hear testimony on the bill—the jammed hearing room, the overflow rooms, the crowds gathered on the streets outside made up of students, teachers and parents from all over the state, the way all the public parking lots in the city center filled up early with people headed for the hearing to support the bill. The bill was introduced by the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate, who by no coincidence were both members of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill is based on the report of the Commission, known as the Kirwan Commission after its Chairman, William ‘Brit’ Kirwan, the former University System of Maryland Chancellor. This session was the first for both the Speaker and the President in their roles as Presiding Officers, and both had staked their leadership on passing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. 

After the hearing, the House education subcommittees began working to consider amendments and then bring those amendments back to the full committees and the whole House, as the Senate went through a similar procedure. But even in late February the COVID-19 virus began to throw that leisurely schedule into a cocked hat. What would normally take many weeks in the House was done in 10 days. The resulting House bill passed on a party-line vote of 96 to 41 and was sent to the Senate.

The manager of the bill in the Senate was also a member of the Commission, Senator Paul Pinsky. Pinsky’s wife of many years was dying of cancer. As her life was coming to a close, Senator Pinsky wanted to spend as much time with her as possible, and came to the Senate only to manage the debate on the Blueprint. The bill passed after a marathon 6-hour voting session. My heart went out to him as I watched him race against the clock. The Senate gave the Blueprint initial approval on Saturday. While the Senate was passing the Kirwan plan, the shadow of COVID-19 was present in the room. With that in mind, a leading Democratic Senator and another member of the Kirwan Commission offered an amendment, which was adopted, that would only increase the budget for education by the rate of inflation if state general tax revenues dip by more than 7.5 percent. 

Then, in a rare move to accelerate the legislative process in the face of COVID19 threatening to shut the legislature down even earlier than the first shortened deadline, key Senate and House legislators met through the weekend to hammer out their differences and agree on final amendments to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. With an agreement reached late in the day on Monday, just before midnight, the Senate voted to pass the Blueprint by a bipartisan vote of 37 to 9, which included all of the Democrats and half a dozen Republicans in favor. After the vote, the Senate rose to give Pinsky a standing ovation as he left to be at his wife’s bedside. (Sadly, his wife Joan Rothgeb, a former special education teacher, passed away early that morning).

The final amendments that passed provide that, in fiscal year 2026, if the Accountability and Implementation Board provided for in the legislation finds that the policies codified in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future based on the recommendations made in the Commission report are not being implemented or there is little or no improvement in student achievement, the General Assembly would have to…”take immediate action to adjust the [funding] formulas and policies” included in the legislation.

On St. Patrick’s Day, the House took up the bill as amended by the Senate, passing the Blueprint at 8pm that evening by a vote of 96-38 along party lines.

When the initial bill—requesting three years of funding to jumpstart implementation of the policies—had come before the legislature last year, it was strongly supported by both Democrats and Republicans. That was particularly gratifying for those of us on the NCEE team, because many who supported the bill on both sides of the aisle said that it was because it was so well researched and supported by the facts and sound analysis. NCEE had supplied that research and analysis and had offered recommendations for new policies and practices that reflected the research we had done. The Commission had acted on those recommendations, so it was gratifying to know that policy research and analysis had, in the end, strongly affected the outcome in the political arena. In fact, during the final House debate on the bill, the Majority Leader (also a member of the Commission) said, “This has been better crafted by more people than any policy I’ve ever seen introduced in this chamber.”

Legislative action on the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future began last year when the legislature passed a bill providing funding for the first three years of implementation of the program. That bill contained a high-level summary of the 10-year plan but few of its details. After it passed without the Governor’s signature, the Governor put together a PAC to raise money to defeat the whole program when this legislation was considered. The Governor’s opposition meant that much of the Republican support that the initial bill had had last year melted away when this bill came up for consideration. In this context, it is remarkable that half a dozen Republican Senators voted for it. The new bill now goes to the Governor’s desk. He can sign it, veto it, or ignore it and let it pass. If he vetoes the bill, it is very likely that when the legislature reconvenes in May for a special session, the legislature will override that veto. 

This means that Maryland has now adopted legislation which, if it is fully implemented, will almost certainly result in the state vaulting to the top of the U.S. state league tables in student achievement, equity and efficiency and make it one of the top performers in the world. I can say that with confidence, because the plan is squarely based on the strategies that the nations already at the top of the world’s education league tables have used to get to the top. 

The plan won the overwhelming support of the Commission, the stakeholders and the legislature because so many Marylanders now understand both that their own future and that of their children rest more than anything else on being very highly educated and very well trained, ready to tackle complex technical challenges and ready to turn on a dime.

This bill passed because Brit Kirwan barnstormed the state, meeting with countless Marylanders to explain why the plan deserved their support, what it would do for them and their children, how the world has been changing and why their views of schools and schooling must change with it. He sugarcoated nothing. His honesty and passion have gone a very long way to build a powerful coalition that has not only made it possible to pass the legislation, but which lays a base for the much larger challenge: implementing its provisions.

Brit Kirwan was hugely aided by Rachel Hise, the lead education staffer in the state’s non-partisan Department of Legislative Services and by Strong Schools Maryland, a grass roots campaign put together by my good friend David Hornbeck, a former Maryland Superintendent of Education, alumnus of NCEE, and dedicated supporter of the Commission report and the resulting legislation. 

NCEE has been approached by other states inquiring whether we would be interested in helping them create and adopt legislation similar to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The answer is that we are very much interested in doing just that. But we do not leap at these invitations. We want these states to understand what it really takes to conduct a process that both produces and deserves the kind of support this bill has received in Maryland. I have already described the years of meetings of the Commission itself, the presentation and discussion of the research we came up with and the debate about the recommendations we made, the testimony from interested individuals and institutions from Maryland and all over the world, and the countless meetings that Brit Kirwan had with Marylanders from one end of the state to the other. But there was much more than that.  What actually occurred was a large continuing conversation that kept involving an ever-wider circle of people all over the state over a period of years. This conversation not only helped many people understand the rationale for the changes, but gave them an opportunity to weigh in on how the recommendations could be made to fit the realities in Maryland. It was that conversation around what became a very complex set of proposals that produced the excitement and support that put it over the top as the legislature fought against the clock to a photo finish. Everyone, all over the state, had had a chance to engage in the conversation, make their views known, listened to the views of others and reach a considered conclusion.  

That process continued even as the legislation was being considered by the General Assembly.  Over 300 amendments were considered in subcommittee during the weeks of hearings. And legislators who had not been members of the Commission became deeply involved in the debate.

Why is it so important to have such a complex, time consuming process? It is not just because that is what it takes to pass legislation that is so ambitious; it is also because that is what it will take to get it implemented properly. You cannot make people do something like this. It will not work if they do not see why it needs to be done and they are not likely to agree to do it in this way if they have not had an opportunity to decide how it will be done. Passing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future really was watching democracy in action.

The nation was in a sour mood before COVID-19 raised its ugly head. And now, this most scary of threats is on our doorstep. Could it be possible that when the worst is passed, we will be able to raise our heads once again, our fears and anxieties behind us, set out to build a new and better world, more resilient, more inclusive and better prepared for whatever might come next? If we can do that, many people, all over the United States, might come to look at this Blueprint for Maryland’s Future as a model for the future of the United States.