Governor signs bills aimed at education

$1.3 billion in school aid among 130 new state laws

May 07, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Describing the moment as historic for education, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a bill yesterday to significantly boost spending on public schools over the next six years.

The Thornton Commission legislation - which raises Maryland's cigarette tax to $1 per pack to pay for the first two years of education aid - was one of 130 bills signed yesterday by the governor.

Glendening also signed into law two other major education bills, giving state teachers unions expanded power in collective bargaining and replacing the elected Prince George's County school board with an appointed one.

The Thornton plan calls for annual state aid to public schools to increase by a total of $1.3 billion over six years, directing a greater share of support to Maryland's poorest districts.

"This may well have been the best legislative session for education in the entire history of the state," Glendening said.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the new law will help local districts boost the achievement of children who live in poverty, have special education needs or aren't native speakers of English.

"In a sense, people have not really been able to provide for the achievement of these students," Grasmick said. "These dollars place a heavy emphasis on assisting them."

By the 2007-2008 academic year, when the plan is to be fully in place, the $2.9 billion now spent by the state on public schools will rise to $5.1 billion. About $1.3 billion of that increase would come from the Thornton legislation.

But the bill includes only enough money to pay for the first year of the plan and most of the second, relying on the 34-cent-per-pack increase in the state cigarette tax. Lawmakers then will need to find additional sources of revenue.

In Prince George's County - which will receive more money from the Thornton plan than any other jurisdiction - Dels. Rushern L. Baker III and James W. Hubbard predicted that the increased aid and change in school board will restore confidence in Maryland's second-largest school system.

Both Baker and Hubbard have spent years trying to persuade fellow lawmakers to do something about their county's school board. The bill eliminates the elected board June 1 and replaces it with one jointly appointed by the governor and the county executive.

"This is a clean state for Prince George's County," said Baker, chairman of the county's House delegation and a candidate for county executive.

The board has been sharply criticized by lawmakers for its actions over the past two years, including efforts to fire the county superintendent. Glendening described it yesterday as having a "circuslike atmosphere," adding that "you can understand the need for change."

The collective bargaining legislation represents a final gift by Glendening to state unions, who rank among his biggest backers. The measure greatly expands the issues over which teachers unions are permitted to bargain to include such topics as classroom assignments, curriculum selection and teacher evaluations. It also extends collective bargaining rights to support personnel in Eastern Shore systems, including secretaries, clerks, classroom aides and janitors.

"It's a matter of changing the perception of what can be done through collective bargaining," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "We are now allowed to use it to improve teaching and learning."

Other bills signed yesterday include legislation that will:

Require children younger than 6 to be strapped into safety seats while riding in cars or other vehicles. It takes effect in October 2003. State law currently requires children younger than 4 to ride in safety seats.

Restore voting rights to some felons. The law - a priority of black lawmakers - still prohibits felons twice convicted of violent crimes from voting, but allows others to vote.

Set new boundaries for Maryland's eight congressional districts. The map was designed by Democratic leaders to elect more Democrats from Maryland, ending the House delegation split of four Democrats and four Republicans.

Create a commission to study state taxes and other revenues, with the goal of recommending ways to pay for future needs in public schools, transportation and health care.

Glendening has scheduled one more bill signing for May 16. He is expected to announce this month which legislation he will veto.

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