A separate Family Court, authorized in the General Assembly this year, should make a big difference for families who find themselves caught up in the judicial system. From custody cases to families with children in trouble with the law, the current justice system is characterized by long delays and the distinct signal that other cases take priority over family matters. That move is one of several actions taken by the legislature this year that will have a tangible effect on the lives of children in Maryland.
Other bills important to children included a measure that allows parents to designate another adult to take children for immunization shots. This should help ensure that parents' work schedules or other conflicts don't interfere with a child's vaccinations. Another measure authorizes automatic withholding of child support payments from the earnings of non-custodial parents.
Schools are always important to child welfare, and on that front the legislature has made some gains. This was the year the legislature finally succeeded in overcoming objections of interference in local control and officially outlawed corporal punishment in schools -- an issue with a great deal of symbolic importance at a time of rising concerns about physical abuse of children. Sen. Idamae Garrott gets much of the credit for this success.
In a special session late last year, the General Assembly took the tough but necessary step of discontinuing the state's contributions to Social Security payments for school employees, a practice that disproportionately benefited wealthier jurisdictions. In part to help take the sting out of that move, the legislature agreed this session to stop short of fully funding increases in an equity aid formula that seeks to even out disparities in school resources in each jurisdiction.
Most of the money saved was funneled back into education. But it was directed largely to programs that benefit well-to-do jurisdictions more than poorer ones, such as efforts to help non-English-speaking students. As a trade-off for getting the state out from under the burdensome Social Security costs, the move makes sense. But it should be seen as a one-time deal, not as a precedent.
Maryland still tolerates a shameful disparity in funding levels for schools. Many schools, like those in Baltimore City, continue to lack the resources -- from books to toilet paper -- to create an atmosphere conducive to learning. In the long run that hurts not just children in the city and rural counties, but it also harms the economic viability and quality of life of the state as a whole.