After conservative Carroll County parents called a school health curriculum “sexual indoctrination” last year, Maryland lawmakers proposed a way to enforce state standards.
But in the span of a few weeks, the bill evolved into a measure that would give the state superintendent unprecedented power to take funds away from school systems if they do not comply with Maryland’s curriculum guidance.
While Democrats say the bill would keep school systems law abiding, Republicans and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education say it is a threat to school districts’ freedom to make their own decisions.
“This bill, starting out as a health curriculum bill, takes on a whole new troubling light,” said John Woolums, director of governmental relations at the Boards of Education association.
Despite criticisms, the bill passed the House of Delegates and is now in the Senate.
Historically, Maryland is known for allowing school districts a lot of autonomy. Districts have the power to write their own curricula based on the state’s standards, or framework, which specifies what skills a student must have mastered in each grade by the end of each year.
Legislators wanted to make a law that essentially turns the health education framework into statute to prevent school systems from flouting it.
Maryland’s framework, and the first draft of the bill, HB119, state that the health curriculum must be age-appropriate and allow parents to opt their children out of certain lessons. However, those districts must create a state-aligned alternative curriculum for those students.
State superintendent Mohammed Choudhury was one of the supporters of the bill’s first draft. He testified on Feb. 1 that local school boards will have the power to adopt their own health curriculum that is based on the framework, and that the framework is seated in scientific and medically accurate information.
Among those opposed was Maryland Association of Boards of Education. Woolums testified that the framework already accomplishes what the bill is proposing, and that the association is against the state interfering in the “education arena.” Other opponents were parents who don’t want their children to be forced to learn about topics like gender identity and sexuality.
“This particular bill is political activism cloaked as health education,” Donna Sivigny, a Carroll County school board member, said at a Feb. 8 board meeting.
She said the health framework erodes parents’ rights, isn’t supported by science and erodes local control.
Sivigny was on the board when the district banned schools from displaying pride flags and suggested implementing a reporting system for parents who thought teachers weren’t being “politically neutral” in classrooms.
By March, the bill looked completely different. Language about the health education was crossed out and replaced with text that stated all subjects, not just health, must follow the framework. If they do not, school systems can lose up to 20% of their state funding.
More specifically, if the state superintendent notices a county board is not following curriculum guidelines or is allowing parents to opt children out of required instruction, he will give them a warning. If the situation is not resolved in 30 days, he will direct the state comptroller to withhold 10% of state funds from local school systems that were budgeted during that fiscal year. If the issue still isn’t resolved in the next 60 days, another 10% will be taken away. The funds will be returned once the situation is resolved.
In a March 8 news release, the association called the amended bill a “total state takeover of local control over all curriculum frameworks, standards, and even instructional materials.”
“Few issues matter more to Maryland school boards when it comes to effectively carrying out their important work than local governance,” the release stated.
Woolums said in an interview that taking funds from local school boards is “pretty radical” and “unprecedented.” Existing Maryland law allows withholding state funds from school system who don’t comply with state education programs, but it doesn’t stipulate an amount.
Part of the bill references “resource materials” and “teaching aids,” which worried Woolums. He said the association doesn’t want the state to control what textbooks schools use.
The association plans to suggest revisions to the bill that allow for checks and balances between the superintendent and state board. For instance, the state superintendent couldn’t take away funds without approval from the state board.
State Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat sponsoring the senate version of the bill, said it’s hard to say whether the bill will pass. Although it seems controversial, Lam said, the bill and its new amendments wouldn’t change anything in practice.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, the Democrat sponsoring the house bill, said during a House floor discussion on March 8 that school districts already agreed to abide by the state education framework, and that the bill wouldn’t change that. It would only give notice to districts who are not, which isn’t happening currently.
Atterbeary accused Carroll County of not following the framework. The system is currently creating an alternative class for parents who want to opt out of health courses.
Ed O’Meally, general counsel for Carroll County’s school board, said the system is allowed to do so under the provision that the district create a state-aligned alternative curriculum.
Atterbeary declined an interview request, and the Maryland State Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
A group of Carroll parents aren’t happy with the bill and even called for Choudhry’s removal.
“Teachers, parents, and local school boards across the state have lost confidence in Superintendent Choudhury’s ability to lead the Maryland State Department of Education,” a petition from the group read. “His self-obsession with top-down control has proven him to be incapable of his post and a danger to Maryland students and teachers.”