ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate voted along party lines Tuesday to allow the state’s 24 public school districts to decide on their own when to start and end the school year.
The nucleus of the legislation focuses on a 2016 executive order by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that forced school districts to start school after Labor Day and end by June 15.
Some Democrats, school officials and advocates criticized Hogan for assisting Worcester County along Ocean City, which during that time served as the only jurisdiction in the state to start school after Labor Day.
The bill now heads to the House of Delegates, which could discuss the legislation as early as Thursday during a hearing before the Ways and Means Committee.
After the 31-13 vote, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said this now sits as a regional issue.
In neighboring Virginia, lawmakers in the state Senate voted Monday to push its school start date back two weeks before Labor Day. If it receives final approval, it would end a decades-old tradition to start the school year after Labor Day unofficially known as the “Kings Dominion rule,” based on the popular theme park about 90 miles from the District.
“[Virginia lawmakers] recognized because of snow days, AP testing, summer school [and] free lunch programs that school systems need diversity,” said Miller, a Democrat who voted in favor of the Maryland bill. “If the legislature dominated by Republicans in Virginia can recognize giving local control to local boards, we think Maryland can do the same.”
Some state school administrators and officials said beginning school after Labor Day has forced certain cutbacks in teacher instructional days and spring breaks. State law requires all students to receive 180 days of instruction.
Meanwhile, Hogan posted a message Tuesday on his Facebook page urging residents to call any senator who voted “yes” on the legislation, part of a petition effort to place the matter on a referendum if the legislature votes in favor of the bill.
He explained that former Gov. Martin O’Malley organized a task force in 2013 to examine the ramifications of opening schools after Labor Day, which some Democratic lawmakers supported at the time.
After Hogan was elected the following year, he said he waited for lawmakers to pass legislation. Since they didn’t, he imposed the executive order that went into effect for the 2017-18 school year.
“The Maryland Senate just voted against the will of over 70 percent of Marylanders who want schools to start classes after Labor Day,” Hogan said. “If that isn’t blatant, partisan hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.”
Hogan announced last week plans to submit legislation to codify his executive order in a statute. In addition, any local school system that decides to restructure its academic calendars to begin school before Labor Day must allow residents to decide at the ballot box.
Sen. Benjamin Kramer (D-Montgomery County) read a portion of a letter from the Montgomery County school board that supports starting schools before Labor Day.
“My elected school board unanimously said we need this,” he said. “We need to improve what we’re doing. We need to have the flexibility to have instructional days we deem appropriate for our students.”
Sen. Michael Hough Jr., a Republican who represents Frederick and Carroll counties, said local officials work on school calendars “lack common sense.” Before Hogan’s executive order, Hough said schools opened a week or two before Labor Day but would close on the Friday before the holiday.
“The calendar is a total mess,” said Hough, who voted against the school board legislation. “When they start school on Aug. 22 and have the kids go back for two or three days for that first week. It’s nonsensical. I have little faith in our local school because they have proven they could not put together a coherent calendar.”