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Training, new buildings, testing among top education issues for General Assembly

When the Maryland General Assembly convenes in Annapolis next month, universities and community colleges will support ongoing efforts to develop the economy and make the state more business-friendly – such as by helping expand the workforce through continuing education.

The University System of Maryland sees economic development as part of its mission, and its legislative goals include keeping higher education accessible and adequately funded, said Patrick N. Hogan, the system’s vice chancellor for government relations.

Advocates and lawmakers say construction funding for K-12 schools, standardized testing and sexual assaults on college campuses will also get attention this session, as will keeping down the cost of college education.

The state Department of Legislative Services reported in November that demand for college financial aid exceeds supply by an estimated $1.1 billion, but that doesn’t seem to have affected enrollment. Instead, many students are likely turning to home loans, retirement plan loans and credit cards to help cover the unmet need, according to the report.

While legislation is still being developed, university officials and legislators, including Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, who chair the legislature’s education subcommittees, say bills addressing the affordability issue are likely.

Officials also expect a push to maintain and enhance higher education funding, but the scope of that debate will depend on what Gov. Larry Hogan proposes when he unveils his fiscal 2017 budget.

“It’s unclear what role the administration will have,” Pinsky said.

Hogan hasn’t announced his legislative agenda, but a spokesman said the governor was committed to making sure Maryland students receive the best education possible and would continue to support public charter schools, early-college high schools that offer college credit, and establishing a tax credit for businesses that donate to schools.

Critics of the tax credit proposal, known as BOAST, say it would effectively divert taxpayer dollars toward private and religious schools.

One issue that’s not expected to return in 2016 is the dispute over funding the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI), which provides money to 13 local school systems where the cost of education is higher than elsewhere in Maryland.

Hogan funded half of the index in the fiscal 2016 budget, and has said he won’t release the additional $68.1 million that lawmakers set aside to fully fund the plan. But not releasing the funds triggers a provision mandating full funding for the GCEI in fiscal 2017.

Community colleges

While a state commission explores ways to improve the business climate in Maryland, community colleges say they’re ready to help grow the state’s workforce – but they want more money to do it.

“We are flexible enough to create any training course needed,” said Bernard Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.  “That’s what we’re in business for.”

The association will ask lawmakers to ensure that community colleges are fully funded — according to a funding mechanism known as the Cade formula – in four years. That translates to an increase of $26 million per year, Sadusky said.

Community colleges also want a restoration of capital funding, after their annual limit was decreased from $85 million to $60 million during the 2016 session, and $2 million to give aid to students in continuing education programs, he said.

What the institutions don’t want is for lawmakers to impose any new tuition waivers without a funding source; community colleges already pick up about $10 million in costs for students – such as those with disabilities or who grew up in foster care – who are eligible for free tuition.

The association isn’t arguing that the state should support tuition relief, but it doesn’t think the cost should be passed down to the community colleges, Sadusky said.

The association also expects to present lawmakers with a plan – modeled on a program adopted in Tennessee — to offer tuition-free education at community colleges, but it won’t be putting forward any legislation this year, Sadusky said.

“We have to stimulate the conversation,” he said.

School construction

Lawmakers and education advocates are expecting a debate over how best to fund K-12 school construction projects across the state.

This summer, Hogan asked the state’s Interagency Committee on School Construction to report on practices the state could adopt to keep costs low. The governor has suggested that Monarch Global Academy, a charter school in Anne Arundel County, could be a model for less-expensive construction.

Maryland will spend $318 million on school construction and renovation projects in fiscal 2016.

Jones said lawmakers will look at some alternative and innovative strategies for school construction in the coming session. Some local jurisdictions also favor changes to the current system.

“It’s a hot topic everywhere,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo).

Counties have seen a trend of cost overruns and high bids for school construction projects, and those jurisdictions end up paying the difference rather than splitting the extra cost with the state, Sanderson said.

“It leaves counties and school boards in a tough spot,” he said, adding that he expected there would be legislation requiring those costs to be shared.

Sanderson also expects a push to use the state’s budget surplus – projected to be around $500 million – to provide one-time funding to school construction projects.

Standardized testing

A commission created by lawmakers during the 2015 session is tasked with examining the state, federal and local assessment tests Maryland’s K-12 students must take and determining if regular instruction is suffering as a result.

That report isn’t due until next summer, but lawmakers will consider taking action on testing before then, Jones said.

The Maryland State Education Association, which represents the state’s educators, will be advancing “anything we can to reduce time on testing,” said Sean Johnson, the organization’s assistant executive director for public affairs.

While the commission is likely to recommend best practices on testing for local school boards, lawmakers should impose a cap on the overall amount of classroom time devoted to mandated testing, Johnson said.

A 2 percent cap, which MSEA supports, would limit the amount of hours spent on mandated testing each year to 21.6 or below; the association has seen anywhere from 25 to 50 hours per year in various jurisdictions, Johnson said.

“We do not want the General Assembly picking what’s a good test and a bad test,” Johnson said, adding that those decisions should be made at the local level. But the focus needs to be on tests that inform instruction, rather than on tests that label students, he said.

Sexual assaults on campus

As the national discussion about sexual assault and campus safety continues, Del. Maricé Morales, D-Montgomery says she plans reintroduce a pair of bills addressing the issue.

One calls for the state’s colleges and universities to adopt a standard of “affirmative consent” for their sexual assault policies — meaning that participants must give clear, unambiguous and voluntary indications of agreement before engaging in sexual activity, Morales said.

Another bill requires colleges and universities to indicate on transcripts if students are suspended or expelled for sexual misconduct or if students withdraw from the institutions while being investigated for a sex offense, Morales said.

The notation would be similar to the reporting requirements for acts of plagiarism, she said. “The goal is to show that there are indeed academic and professional consequences to a poor decision,” she said.

While both bills died in committee in 2015, Morales believes that increased awareness of the issues will make lawmakers more willing to support the proposals next year.

Daily Record reporter Bryan P. Sears contributed to this report.