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Kirwan Named to Chair School Funding Commission

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Brit Kirwan

Brit Kirwan

In an unusual joint announcement of a highly unusual joint appointment, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic leaders of the legislature Tuesday named former university system chancellor Brit Kirwan as chair of a commission to review all the hotly contested school funding issues in Maryland.

The legislature quietly and unanimously passed two bills, HB999/SB905, setting up the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. Its recommendations are due in December 2017, potentially kicking off some of the most contentious debates of the election-year legislative session in 2018 as representatives fight for formulas that help their local schools.

The 25-member commission is charged with examining a long list of issues about public school funding:

  • An updated base per pupil funding amount and additional funding for special needs students that are adequate for students to meet the new academic standards for college and career readiness;
  • how to deal with counties with increasing and declining enrollment; expansion of prekindergarten and funding for prekindergarten and other early childhood education programs;
  • equity in school finance and local wealth measures; the regional cost of education index;
  • accountability measures;
  • the effects of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act on education in the State; and,
  • Policy initiatives to enhance the availability of and access to innovative educational opportunities in K-12 education systems and how the State can better prepare students for postsecondary education, the workforce and the global economy.

The 25-member commission includes four senators, four delegates, representatives of school boards, superintendents, unions, county officials, the university chancellor, business groups and parents, as well as members of the public. Some members are appointed by the Assembly’s presiding officers, some by the governor, and some by outside groups.

The joint appointment of the chair was required by the bill, and if it didn’t happen by Aug. 1, the Democratic leaders were allowed to do it on their own.

Adept at education and politics

In naming Kirwan, Hogan and his frequent jousting partners, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, managed to select not only a nationally recognized educator but one of the most adept navigators of Maryland’s political waters and education policy.

Kirwan served as chancellor of the University System of Maryland for 12 years, president of the Ohio State University for four years, and president of the University of Maryland College Park flagship campus for nine. Kirwan, 78, began his career in Maryland as a math professor.

The new commission comes 14 years after the Thornton Commission, headed by Howard University professor Alvin Thornton, recommended legislation passed in 2002 that led to the massive infusion of education funding from the state that now amounts to $6.3 billion a year. Adequate public schools is one of the onlt funding obligations mandated in the Maryland Constitution, and was the subject of multiple lawsuits in the last century that resulted in formation of the Thornton commission,

Creating the new commission was a top priority for the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing 70,000 educators, but the entire education establishment was behind the bills, including all the school boards and superintendents. The Maryland Association of Counties, PTAs, the ACLU and child advocacy groups all supported the legislation.

Look at more than funding, governor says

In announcing the appointment, Hogan said: “The formation of the Kirwan Commission is a valuable opportunity to identify new polices and ground-breaking solutions that will better prepare students for the future and has the real potential to improve educational outcomes in Maryland schools,”

But in a nod to his continuing battles with legislators over school funding, Hogan also said, “In order to live up to its potential, the commission must resist the temptation to focus entirely on education funding, to the exclusion of innovative new ideas that will truly change our schools for the better.”

“A quality education for every child in Maryland is a top priority of the General Assembly,” said Speaker Busch. “Dr. Kirwan has dedicated much of his career to the students of this state and his work through the commission will set a blueprint for the success of Maryland’s children for the next decade.”

“Dr. Kirwan’s national prominence and tremendous experience in how to prepare our children for the economy of the future is unparalleled,” said President Miller “I can think of no one better to chair the Commission and am deeply grateful for Dr. Kirwan’s willingness to serve our state once again.”

Shows and No-Shows in Cleveland and Philadelphia

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Gov. Larry Hogan and I will not be going to Cleveland this month for the Republican National Convention — but for different reasons.

Gov. Larry Hogan plans on staying close to home this month where he gets warmly greeted, as he did on Monday at the Arbutus parade. Photo by Governor's Office.

Gov. Larry Hogan plans on staying close to home this month where he gets warmly greeted, as he did on Monday at the Arbutus parade. Photo by Governor’s Office.

Ten thousand other politicos and journalists will flock to Cleveland and Philadelphia for the staged extravaganzas that are our political conventions.

Thousands more demonstrators are expected, especially in Cleveland which is bracing for potential violence from the left, Latinos and other anti-Trump forces.

In Cleveland, there was already one lawsuit by the ACLU now settled over the usual police plans to keep the protests far, far away from the Quicken Loans Arena and out of sight of the delegates.

Real news might actually break out in Cleveland over Donald Trump, both inside the hall and on the streets, but GOP leaders will try to keep the unpredictable from happening, even with the Donald involved.

I won’t be going because I’ve got other deadlines to meet and no travel funds. More importantly, the national conventions I’ve attended in 1976 (New York City for Jimmy Carter), 1980 (New York again for Carter, Detroit for Ronald Reagan) and finally 2012 (Charlotte for Obama) showed that a lone reporter on the ground but with limited access is really no better than a reporter working the phones and social media from afar as I did for the Baltimore Examiner in 2008.

Watch it on TV

Yes, you miss the atmospherics, like experiencing the audience reaction to Bill Clinton’s nominating speech for President Obama as I did in 2012. I even had a seat, but it was behind the massive risers for TV cameras, so I could only watch Clinton on the big screen.

The next day, I couldn’t even get in the hall for Obama’s acceptance speech, and watched it on TV with hundreds of other reporters in the overflow filing center. If you’re gonna watch it on TV, why not do it in the comfort of home?

Even Maryland’s Democratic delegates were high up in the rafters last time; the GOP Marylanders had a better floor location to see Mitt Romney in Tampa, and Clint Eastwood talking to the empty chair (minus Obama), the kind of unscripted event that convention managers appall.

So sit back and watch the conventions on TV; switch to C-Span for the least chatter and the least bias.

Hogan’s no show

For several months, Democrats and reporters with hopefully more legitimate reasons had been trying to get Hogan to say what he thought about Trump. Hogan had gone whole hog supporting his friend and political ally, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, for president. When Christie dropped out, and quickly threw his lot with Trump, Hogan was adrift. He said he was “disgusted” with the process in both parties, and didn’t like either major party candidate.

He announced he wasn’t going to the convention — where governors typically play a prominent role. Finally last month, asked if he would vote for Trump, Hogan said, “No, I don’t plan to. I guess when I get behind the curtain I’ll have to figure it out. Maybe write someone in. I’m not sure.”

It was a lose-lose situation for the Republican governor in a consistently Democratic state, and Democrats knew it. Support Trump, and lose some support from the centrist Democrats who helped him get elected; reject Trump, and lose some of his conservative base, as his statement did; continue to play coy, and raise doubts in both camps.

He was already on shaky ground with some of the more conservative and libertarian elements of his party for his failure to make real, painful cuts in the state budget, instead of restraining it to modest growth. He has also failed to produce most of the tax cuts he pledged to pursue — though he has tried.

Maybe, just maybe, at the risk of seeming terribly naive, Hogan’s stance on Trump wasn’t just a political calculation, but a true reflection of his beliefs. And Democrats will not lure him into attacking Trump to further alienate his base.

A happy Trump delegate

Laura Walsh, on the other hand, is going to Cleveland as an enthusiastic Trump delegate from the 7th Congressional District. She lives in Woodbine in Western Howard County and works in Columbia as a paralegal and office manager at Walsh & Co., an estate planning and tax counseling law firm headed by her husband Jim.

“Trump’s campaign intrigued me because it was a different approach so I spent more time reading up and watching Trump’s speeches at his rallies more than other candidates,” Walsh said in an email interview. “I was on the fence between Trump and Cruz but finally went the Trump route somewhere in January, if not before.”

Walsh and her husband have been active in Republican politics for three decades, and in 2014 she was elected to the Howard County Republican Central Committee.

“I am not fed up with the Republican establishment,” Walsh said. “But rather disappointed with Congress’ failure to assert a constitutional role to control spending and failure to stand up to Obama.”

This is a common theme among Trump supporters. They feel they helped turn the House of Representatives GOP red in 2010, got the Senate a Republican majority in 2014, and yet little has changed in Washington.

On the primary ballot, Walsh was a designated Trump delegate, approved by the candidate’s campaign after a review of her resume. Every single Trump delegate in all eight Maryland congressional districts got elected, beating by wide margins many better known candidates and elected officials running uncommitted or supporting other candidates.

Delegates bound to Trump

“I believe Trump will be nominated at the convention with little dissent,” said Walsh, who was chosen to serve on the credentials committee for the convention, two from each state judging who gets to vote. “I’m getting emails now from individuals pushing for Rubio votes at the convention and other emails requesting me to vote with my conscience — and not follow the state rules.”

But she said, “I am following Maryland rules at the convention.”  Those rules bind her and all the delegates to vote for the person who won the primary for at least two ballots — unless Trump releases them or gets less than 35% of the votes in a roll call.

“The [#NeverTrump] movement is ill advised and will hurt the Republican party and help the Hillary campaign,” said Walsh.

This requirement also binds the 11 at-large delegates chosen by the state convention in May, such a Larry Helminiak of Carroll County, 2nd vice chair of the state party and a longtime ally of Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman.

Helminiak says he too has been contacted about switching from Trump, but has no problem supporting the party’s nominee.

He sees growing support for Trump in Carroll County — admittedly one of the staunchest Republican bastions in Maryland. He notes that typically it’s hard to get people to take political yards signs. But now at carnivals at the volunteer fire companies, when the GOP sets up shop, people are lining up and asking, “Do you have any Trump signs?”

By Len Lazarick

 

Audit Finds Multiple Money Problems at MD Education Agency

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The Maryland State Department of Education kept more than $12 million of federal reimbursements for its own programs rather than return it to the state as required by state law, state auditors found in a report citing multiple problems with the department’s financial dealings..

The Office of Legislative Auditor’s report released Tuesday raised issues across the agency including improper handling of checks, spending that didn’t follow procurement guidelines, faults the business office for improperly handling funds and checks; and states MSDE neglected to report possible criminal or unethical activity of its employees for possible prosecution.

The audit also questioned if MSDE is doing enough to check criminal histories of child care workers and secure a system that processes $81.5 million in child care subsidies (See separate story.)

MSDE is responsible for a large chunk of state spending, overseeing about $7.4 billion in spending in fiscal 2015.

Three of eight audit findings in a previous audit needed to be repeated.

Audit demands reimbursement of millions in federal funds

MSDE is refusing to pay back $12.3 million that auditors determined should be returned to the state general fund.

Federal grants include reimbursement for indirect costs, like central overhead services provided for human resources or information technology. Auditors determined that other state agencies, such as the comptroller’s office, provided such services to MSDE and were eligible for cost recovery, but MSDE did not send funds back to the state after they got payments for those costs from the federal government.

Instead, MSDE claimed the amounts it got for indirect services ($27 million) were insufficient for its needs and retained the remaining $12.3 million in funds to pay for central service functions provided within MSDE.

“State law provides that funds recovered from federal sources for statewide indirect costs must be reverted to the general fund and it prohibits granting any waiver or exemption from this requirement,” the audit states.

MSDE agreed in the audit response to fix the issue in the future, but said it had not calculated the specific amount of state-provided services, which is why it wasn’t paid to the state. It also said it would not be paying the money back.

“However, MSDE does not have access to prior year recoveries,” the response states. “Therefore, it is not possible for MSDE to revert the prior year statewide indirect cost recoveries.”

Failure to prosecute criminal or unethical behavior

When MSDE received reports that employees were doing things like collecting a paycheck for hours they did not work, the department neglected to inform the proper authorities, auditors found.

Allegations of unethical or criminal behavior by state employees are supposed to be referred to the Office of the Attorney General’s Criminal Division and the governor’s chief legal counsel, the audit stated.

But during the audit period of July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2014, MSDE received five reports of such activity and reported none of them to the attorney general or governor’s counsel. Instead, MSDE conducted a limited review and in each case found evidence of improper activity including misrepresentation of hours worked and falsifying documents.

Then, MSDE chose not to expand its review because the agency has a 30-day timeframe to impose disciplinary action.

“However, without consulting the Criminal Division there is no assurance that the investigative actions were sufficient or that the resultant disciplinary actions appropriate,” the audit states.

In one case, MSDE found an employee was overpaid $3,592 one month, and allowed the employee to resign without being fired and simply pay back the money. But MSDE did not expand the investigation to see the extent of falsified time sheets, limiting it to that one month. In the four other cases, ultimately employees paid back the money or forfeited leave, and two resigned, one was fired and one received written counseling.

MSDE agreed to the audit recommendations for this section.

Procurement regulations lax

A test of MSDE purchase orders revealed that MSDE hasn’t always been following procurement regulations established to make sure money is well spent. This included paying invoices for thousands of dollars where support documentation did not match the bills vendors sent to the state.

From fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2014, MSDE issued 3,521 purchase orders for goods and services with payments totaling $277 million.

The auditors tested just nine of these purchase orders totaling $20.3 million and found issues like lack of documentation of how vendors were evaluated during the bid process. One $1.3 million contract lacked specific deliverables to allow performance monitoring and invoice verification, the audit found.

A review of six invoices for that contract also found that there were $222,500 worth of discrepancies between the invoices and supporting documents like timesheets and logs. For instance, the vendor charged $10,000 for hours that were not worked according to that documentation.

The audit also found MSDE often didn’t allow the 20-day minimum for bids, which would allow more competition. Four contracts were found during audit tests with bid solicitation of only five to nine days, with only one, two, or three bids coming in.

MSDE is working to address these issues, it stated in a response letter. On Oct. 26, 2015, it held a procurement meeting to reinforce state regulations, including the 20-day bidding time.

Business practices

The business office of MSDE has not been recording and restrictively endorsing checks immediately upon receipt, the audit found of checks related to grant reimbursements totaling $13.5 million. Instead, two employees handled them before they were recorded and endorsed – opening the door to fraud or theft.

MSDE said it had developed procedures to prevent this happening as the result of a prior audit but that the new findings were an “exception” and supervisors had reviewed procedures with the employees.

The audit also said MSDE failed to following accounting procedures like prenumbered receipt forms to record collections received, which prevents misappropriated checks.

Auditors also suggested that MSDE should require electronic payments for large sums  – some of more than a million dollars each — to increase control and accountability.

MSDE agreed with all of the accounting findings but argued against large payments being made electronically. They said it would eliminate some of the detail on how to apply payments to multiple programs, but auditors said that paperwork could be completed separately and in addition to electronic payments.

By Meg Tully

Op-Ed: Hogan Burdened with Trump Baggage by Barry Rascovar

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Hogan has a problem

His name is Donald Trump.

Everywhere that Hogan goes,

The Donald trails behind him.

Poor Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. He’s tried like the dickens to separate himself from controversial Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

He’s said how disgusted he is with national politics – an indirect slam at Trump.

He’s noted he won’t be going to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next month, anyway.

He has said he’s no fan of Trump and that the combustible New York developer ought not be the Republican nominee.

He endorsed and campaigned for a Trump rival, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

He says he’s not part of the presidential discussion and doesn’t want to talk about Trump any more.

When pressed further by reporters, Hogan said he was “speechless.”

But, the questioner continued, would he campaign for Republican Trump in Maryland? That, Hogan said was “a stupid” question.

Hogan’s ‘not involved’

In exasperation, Hogan nearly mimicked a statement to reporters made by the late Gov. Marvin Mandel in denying any role in an enrichment scheme by his friends. Hogan’s version: He’s not involved and doesn’t plan to be involved in anything having to do with any aspect of Trumpian presidential politics.

None of these quasi-, semi- or circuitous denials seemed to work. Hogan’s Trump baggage keeps weighing him down.

Reporters still are badgering him. Does he support the new leader of his party? Does he agree with the almost daily conspiracy allegations and undocumented bombshells coming from Trump’s tweets?

He’s tried dodging reporters, cutting off his responses, walking away from the podium or rushing into his waiting vehicle.

He even made the claim, “I have nothing to do with Donald Trump” – as though the man about to become titular head of the GOP is an alien to Maryland’s Republican governor.

Finally, Hogan tried a more direct response: He’s not going to vote for Trump in the November election.

Clinton, Johnson or a write-in?

Does that mean he intends to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor? Or will it be a write-in presidential name?

Hogan says he’ll make up his mind when he casts his ballot.

Maryland Democrats are gleeful watching the Republican governor twist like a pretzel attempting to half-divorce himself from Trump.

Both Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and U.S. Rep. John Delaney –potential Democratic opponents in 2018 – have tweaked Hogan for his intransigence in separating himself from Trump.

Delaney even paid for a truck to haul a billboard around the State House questioning Hogan’s silence.

Callers to right-wing talk shows indicated a mixed verdict on Hogan’s “I won’t vote for Trump” statement. Some applauded him for taking a principled stand. Others condemned him for what they consider a turncoat action.

Campaigning for Szeliga

Hogan’s position may anger many staunch conservative Republicans in the short run but over the long term the discontented are likely to stick by Hogan when he runs for a second term in two years.

Those who doubt Hogan’s loyalty to the GOP will see the governor campaigning for Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, who is running for U.S. Senate in November. Szeliga has denounced some of Trump’s comments as racist and discriminatory, yet she has not gone as far as Hogan in her separation from the presidential candidate.

Questions will keep coming Hogan’s way, though. He has yet to condemn any of Trump’s beyond-the-pale accusations or indicated whether he agrees or disagrees with what Trump alleges.

Questions also will start coming about Hogan’s position on presidential issues that impact Maryland, such as the need, or lack of a need, for more gun-control legislation in light of the slaughter in Orlando.

The next four-plus months could be quite uncomfortable for Governor Hogan as he continues to try to tiptoe around the presidential conundrum Trump is creating for Republican leaders.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

Education: Testing Commission Wraps Up, Asks School Systems to Finish the Work

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Anyone hoping the state commission on school testing would substantially reduce the amount of standardized testing in public schools already knew that was not going to happen.

But as the Commission to Review Maryland’s Use of Assessments and Testing in Public Schools put the finishing touches Tuesday on its final report, they believed that their findings and recommendations could significantly improve how tests are given, and eventually reduce the time and effort put into tests that don’t contribute to student learning or instruction.

“We were not convened as a group to do away with assessments,” said commission chairman Christopher Berry, principal of James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County, addressing points he would make in the conclusion of the report.

But Berry said changes they recommend in how, why and when tests are given will go “a good distance in addressing” the negative impact on instruction time and the disruptive impact of long standardized tests.

District committees on assessments a key recommendation

Berry and others on the 18-member commission believed that one of its most important recommendations is the creation of new district committees on assessments (DCAs) in all 24 Maryland school systems to review and report on standardized tests mandated at the local, state and federal level.

“A lot of what we’ve been charged with can be accomplished better at the local level,” Berry said.

One of the eight tasks the law creating the commission gave it was to “determine whether some assessments are duplicative or otherwise unnecessary.” But Berry said “we didn’t have the proper data to make judgments.”

“I’m not comfortable telling (the local districts) how much testing they should have,” Berry said.

The commission did recommend eliminating a middle school civics test and a high school biology test. It also recommended new resources to aid testing, changes in policies to reduce the burden on teachers and disruption of classes, and better communications with parents and students.

Local and state board must review commission proposals

The law setting up the commission also requires local school boards to review and “accept or reject the findings and recommendations” of the commission by Sept. 1, and send their responses to the State Board of Education, which must “accept or reject” and pass on its responses to the governor and General Assembly by Oct. 1.

Three members of the state board served on the commission, including its president Guffrie Smith, a career educator from Calvert County.

“I’m glad the commission was formed,” Smith told MarylandReporter.com. “This needed to be done.”

But he also felt the report needed to acknowledge that the local school districts had already begun to adjust their testing mandates in response to pressure from the public, teachers and legislature, along with the work of the commission.

Laurie Halverson, a Montgomery County PTA leader whom Gov. Larry Hogan appointed to the state Board of Education last month, said, “Things have already improved considerably by reducing the amount of PARCC testing.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a coalition of states developing standardized tests aligned to the Common Core curriculum. The partnership once included over 20 states, but has now dwindled to seven, including Maryland.

After the meeting, Halverson said, “I’m glad we started the dialogue about testing.”

If the group’s recommendations are adopted, Berry said, “I think it will make big difference for students.”

Legislation introduced this year sought to limit school testing to 2% of class time. It passed the House of Delegates but died in a Senate committee. The commission rejected that approach as too simplistic a solution for a complicated problem; many school systems were already below that limit. But such legislation could be revived if the school boards do not respond positively to the commission recommendations.

Maryland Reporter

Opinion: Trump a Dilemma for Maryland Republicans By Laslo Boyd

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When Maryland’s Presidential Primary takes place next month, Donald Trump will be leading the field already narrowed to three with the departure of Marco Rubio. Early on many people did not take his candidacy seriously and therefore did little to oppose him. Now, however, he is stirring anxiety and alarm among increasing numbers of the party faithful.

Some argue that Trump is not a true conservative. Others are appalled at his demagogic language and the increasing violence accompanying his public events.

Fact checking does not seem to lessen the enthusiasm of his supporters. Calls by prominent Republican leaders to reject Trump have not slowed his momentum and may, in fact, have been counterproductive.

When asked recently whom he would be supporting among the Republican candidates, Governor Larry Hogan ducked the question. Given his earlier enthusiastic backing for New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie, it’s hard for Hogan to claim that he doesn’t want to get involved in national politics.

At his press conference, he said he was “disgusted” at what is going on with both parties during this election. That, of course, is also evasive since there was never a chance that he would be supporting Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, much less Martin O’Malley.

A lose/lose proposition

Hogan’s challenge is hardly unique. What are moderate and conservative Republicans to do about Trump’s candidacy? Right now, it looks like a lose/lose proposition. Many analysts see a Republican electoral disaster looming if Trump is at the top of the ticket in the fall. It’s not hard to imagine the party losing control of the Senate and having a significant chunk of its large House majority eroded.

The other side of the equation doesn’t look much better. If the New York billionaire were to prevail in the General Election, the Republican Party as it has historically existed would be one of the losers. And, of even greater significance, this country would be a very scary place.

Can Larry Hogan and other leaders of the Republican Party prevent a Trump nomination? That’s not at all clear at this point. Those party leaders have been both timid and ineffectual in opposing Trump.

As many have argued, the failure of elected Republicans to follow through on promises made to their supporters during previous elections is one of the sources of Trump’s popularity.

A second factor, more disturbing, has been their tolerance, at times encouragement, of appeals to racial bias, demonizing of immigrants and calls for a return to a past that will never exist again. Their complicity in the “birther” movement and the assertions that Barack Obama is really Muslim have contributed directly to the Trump movement.

Political courage needed

Do reasonable Republicans—I include Hogan in that category even though I disagree with some of his policies—have the political courage and judgment to stand up to Trump? The first line of attack is to try to deny him the Republican nomination, although it might be already too late to succeed in that endeavor.

Moreover, that undertaking raises the risk that he might run as an independent if denied the party’s nomination. A second possibility is that his supporters, a considerable plurality of voters in Republican primaries, will sit out the election.

The original error of the Republican establishment was to hope it could keep Trump’s supporters without keeping him. That’s probably not going to happen.

Ultimately, the key to guaranteeing that Trump won’t become president is for Republicans who are uneasy with his candidacy to decide that it’s better to have one of the Democratic candidates as president than to run the risk of electing Trump.

That would require them to distance themselves from his fall campaign. Indeed, that may be the only way Republicans like Hogan can reclaim the party from the insurgency that Trump is riding.

National Republicans are already splitting on what to do. Both Ben Carson and Chris Christie have picked expedience over principle by endorsing Trump. Hogan has the opportunity to step out from Christie’s considerable shadow and stake a claim as a thoughtful leader in the party.

To do that, however, he will need to publicly oppose Trump even if that means risking a barrage of invective from the reality show star. Staying quiet at a time like this is not a sign of leadership. Trump appeals to the worst in people and has openly challenged some of the most important values of our constitutional system.

If Hogan remains silent, he will be making the same mistake that others in the party have made, wanting Trump’s supporters at any cost. Between now and the April 26 Primary, Hogan has a wonderful opportunity to show that he has the political courage to do what is right rather than what is expedient.

Maryland Redistricting Reform Tries to Stay Alive Despite Leadership Opposition

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Reforming the way congressional and legislative districts are carved up in Maryland may have been declared dead on arrival by Democratic leaders, but the Hogan administration and a few progressive Democratic legislators are keeping the issue alive at hearings this week.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 7.09.12 AMThe co-chairs of the governor’s redistricting commission presented their proposal for a new commission completely independent of politicians, HB358, to the House Rules Committee.

Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery, is proposing his own version of an independent commission, HB467, to be made up of the nonpartisan legislative staff. But that commission would only go into effect if Virginia and Pennsylvania form similar commissions. He has allied with two Democratic legislators from those states sponsoring similar bills.

Del. Terri Hill, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, is proposing an independent commission in HB408 for legislative redistricting, completely changing the purpose of her original bill to study the process.

Finally, in resolution HJ4, Reznik along with 46 other Democratic delegates, is calling on the Congress and president to establish “uniform standards and procedures applicable to each state for the creation of the districts for the election of the members of the United States Congress.”

Very gerrymandered state

All of this is designed to tackle Maryland’s status as one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, with Republican representation now reduced to just one seat out of eight in the U.S. House of Representatives, 12.5% — while 36% of voters are registered Republicans.

Senate President Mike Miller, a Democrat who has played a key role in both legislative and congressional redistricting for three decades, has adamantly opposed any change to Maryland’s system while Republican-controlled states continue to draw districts for partisan gain.

But Hogan’s commission, the bill the administration proposed based on its work, and the Democratic legislation is keeping the conversation alive about a topic that is often only revisited every 10 years, after the Census produces the latest population figures.
Testifying to the House Rules Committee Monday were, from left, Walter Olson and Alexander Williams, co-chairs of Gov. Hogan’s Redistricting Reform Commission; and Joe Getty, Hogan’s chief legislative officer.

“It may look like static trench warfare, but there are destabilizing factors,” said Walter Olson, co-chair of the commission, in an interview after the hearing. “There is a strong constituency for this [redistricting reform] in the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party.”

To make that point to the Rules Committee, Olson quoted from President Barack Obama’s January State of the Union address to Congress.

“I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it,” the president said, drawing a standing ovation from Democrats, while Republicans remained seated.

“We had senators and delegates who came out to speak against their own party” for redistricting reform, said retired federal judge Alexander Williams Jr., the other co-chair of the Hogan redistricting commission. He thought the incumbent members of Congress “will continue to be reelected” regardless of how the lines are drawn.

An October Goucher College poll found 73% of Maryland voters prefer a system where legislative and congressional districts are set by an independent commission, as Hogan has proposed; 21% prefer a system where district lines are drawn by elected officials, as is now done after each Census.

One witness opposed

The only witness testifying against the legislation was Ken Stevens of Columbia, a retiree and longtime Democratic activist.

“Nothing is more partisan than redistricting,” Stevens said. “You have to wait till everybody does it the same way at the same time,” reiterating a common Democratic position against “unilateral disarmament” on gerrymandering.

The House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee is made up largely of members of the House leadership; only five of 24 members are Republicans.

Last year, it held a March 2 hearing on five bills related to redistricting, all but one sponsored by Republican delegates. None of the bills even got a recorded vote in committee.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday on the Senate version of redistricting bills, including Chair Joan Carter Conway’s joint resolution with the same language as Reznik’s call for federal standards.

Conway served on Hogan’s redistricting commission, but did not agree with its recommendations.

By Len Lazarick

Annapolis Proposal to Limit School Testing to 2% of Class Time

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Instead of waiting for a state commission to finish studying overtesting in Maryland’s public schools, legislators working with teachers and parents are pushing a standardized testing limit of 2% of annual instructional time.

Organizations representing school superintendents and school boards across Maryland are urging lawmakers to reject the proposal, HB141, and wait for the testing commission’s initial recommendations due July 1.

Del. Eric Luedtke, a former middle school social science teacher in Montgomery County and now a Democrat representing District 14, is lead sponsor of the bill. On Thursday, he told the House Ways and Means Committee on which he serves that the amount of testing required by federal, state and local authorities has crowded out real learning and instructional time.

Losing instructional time

Casey Day-Kells, a 5th grade teacher in Frederick County, reinforced that message.

“Over the last four weeks, I was required to administer a writing test, an individualized reading test for every child, a computer-based reading test, a computer-based math test, and another pencil and paper math test,” Day-Wells told the committee. “Overall, in those last four weeks, this testing has taken over 17 hours of my instructional time,” with no new learning occurring.

Day-Kells chairs the Time to Learn Committee of the Frederick County Teacher’s Association, part of a statewide “Less Testing, More Learning” campaign by the Maryland State Education Association.

Celia Burton, testing coordinator for the Prince George’s County School, testified that “many of our students lost almost 40 days of instructional time.”

Superintendents, boards want to maintain local control

Daniel Curry, Calvert County superintendent of schools representing Maryland’s 24 superintendents, said “it would be premature to make any decision” about testing before the new commission made its first report.

But the superintendents believe that “Local testing should be left in the hands of local jurisdictions,” and he called the 2% figure “arbitrary.”

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education agrees in principle with the superintendents about maintaining local control and waiting for the work of the testing commission.

Commission gets slow start

The testing commission was created by legislation last year signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in May, but the governor’s office was slow in making all the appointments to the 19-member commission, and it did not hold its first meeting till Nov. 17.

There have been three meetings since then, including one on Monday, in which the commissioners heard from the school superintendents, the boards of education, the PTA, and the Baltimore City teachers union.

There is general agreement among most of the groups that there’s too much testing, but how much is actually occurring and what to do about is not clear.

There is also a continuing dispute about the amount of testing reported in a study by the Maryland State Department of Education. MSEA continues to questions the accuracy of the reporting based on different understandings of what tests were actually “mandated” by state and local school authorities.

Commission member Larry Bowers, interim superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, raised the problem that Luedtke’s bill and others that have been introduced “take our work away from us.”

Commission Chair Christopher Berry, principal of James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County, said the commission had to follow its mission spelled out in the law creating it, and the legislators should do as they saw fit.

He has created four subcommittees to work on recommendations.

By Len Lazarick

The Lawsuit that could Reshape Maryland’s Public Universities

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Not all significant news makes the front page (or whatever the social media equivalent is today).  In recent days, we have been consumed, depending on our individual interests, by the Super Bowl; the traveling carnival sometimes referred to as the contest for the Republican Presidential nomination; the unexpected drama of the Democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; our concerns about international terrorism; the zika virus and countless other national, local and personal matters.

Meanwhile, in a development well off the radar screen, a federal judge in Baltimore last week issued an order that marks the most recent stage in a controversy that has been percolating for years.  It is a dispute that has rarely burst into public view, one that is followed closely only by those directly involved.   Nonetheless, it could have a profound and far-reaching impact on public higher education in Maryland.

The so-called “Coalition Case” involves a lawsuit against the state brought by supporters of Morgan State University and the three other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Maryland.  Relying upon a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found “vestiges” of segregation in Maryland’s system of public higher education, the plaintiffs have been seeking a judicial order requiring Maryland to provide a range of specific remedial actions to make the HBCUs more viable and competitive with other universities in the state.

How Judge Blake has ruled

In 2013, Judge Catherine Blake rejected two of the plaintiffs’ principle arguments—that HBCUs are underfunded and that they are overly constrained in their institutional missions.   She agreed, however, that there was still a pattern of “unreasonable duplication” in degree offerings between historically white and historically black colleges.  If that sounds a bit arcane, an English-language translation is that HBCUs want exclusive authority to offer certain high demand academic programs to ensure both enrollment and diversity of their student bodies.

Recognizing that fashioning a specific remedy to implement the finding would take her into uncharted waters, Judge Blake instructed the parties to seek a mediated solution to what looked like a significant impasse.   Over the better part of a year there were discussions that, to no one’s surprise, failed to find common ground.  The chasm between the parties became evident when each side in late 2015 submitted their own recommendations to the Judge.

The plaintiffs urged Judge Blake to shift a number of popular academic programs from historically white to historically black colleges, proposed a merger of the University of Baltimore into Morgan State, and advocated for approval of new programs not currently on the books at HBCUs.  The state countered with a proposal to set up collaborative academic programs as well as a state fund to support them.

Judge Blake’s answer to the dueling proposals was an order last week calling for an evidentiary hearing to allow her to hear more arguments and gather more information.  It is clear, however, that there has been a shift in her thinking since her first ruling.   Blake took the UB-Morgan State merger off the table and in language very different from her initial ruling emphasized the importance of weighing the impact of any remedy against any damage that might be inflicted on Maryland’s system of public higher education.

Plaintiffs overreach

That language can in part be seen as a backlash to the substantial overreach of the plaintiffs’ proposed remedies.  Asking to dismantle and transfer programs from other institutions that were meeting the educational needs of students regardless of their race was a real political miscalculation.  The premise of those arguments reflected a focus on institutions rather than students.  That’s been a fundamental flaw of this case from the start.

Judge Blake in her order reminded the participants that there has been agreement that the state’s traditionally white institutions are no longer segregated, an important distinction from the 1992 Supreme Court decision on which the plaintiffs have been relying.  A review of enrollments by race at those other universities reveals a real diversity that would be seriously jeopardized by the proposals made by the plaintiffs.

Race is not an easy issue to discuss in any realm of American life.  There is an entirely reasonable case to be made for the value and role of historically black colleges.  The aspiration should be to make those institutions as good as possible, not to have them exactly replicate or replace multi-race colleges.

Ignoring educational opportunities 

But when the argument for shifting programs to HBCUs ignores educational opportunities afforded to black students at those other institutions and pays no attention to the complexities and unintended consequences of implementing the proposed changes, it stands on a very questionable foundation.

Make no mistake, Judge Blake has her work cut out for her as she moves forward with this incredibly complicated and vitally important case.  Finding the balance that takes account of the legitimate needs of Maryland higher education as a whole as well as the value of historically black colleges will not be easy.   Her latest order does, however, offer a greater level of confidence that she is working to find that balance.

By Laslo Boyd

Laslo Boyd has held posts in higher education and state government and worked as columnist and a political consultant. He can be reached at lvboyd@gmail.com.