Maryland's Charter Plan Comes Up Short of Governor's Aspirations

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After declaring charter schools one of his top legislative priorities this year, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. received a bill on his desk last week that barely resembled his initial proposal for creating a state charter school program.

Still, observers say the measure stands a good chance of garnering the first- term Republican governor's signature, despite his earlier threats to veto a bill that made too many concessions to charter opponents.

Approved on April 7 just before lawmakers wrapped up their 2003 session, the bill would add Maryland to the list of 39 states and the District of Columbia with laws allowing for charter schools.

"This is a monumental first step for Maryland," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat who sponsored the measure. Saying his bill had to surmount "incredible obstacles" thrown up by powerful lobbying groups, including the state's largest teachers' union, he dismissed criticisms by some advocates that his legislation would enact a charter law in name only.

Maryland actually has one fledgling charter school. The site operates under an agreement with the school board in Frederick County, which is one of two districts in the state that allow the publicly financed but independently operated schools.

The bill sent to Gov. Ehrlich would require all districts to adopt policies allowing for the formation of charter schools. Parents, teachers, nonprofit groups, or higher education institutions could apply to their local school boards for charters, and could appeal to the state board of education if the applications were rejected.

If the state board were to overrule a local district, state officials would then "mediate" between the charter applicant and the district to reach agreement on a charter.

The measure also would set up an expedited process for applications from "restructured schools" to convert to charter status, a provision designed for regular public schools that fail to meet performance standards under the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

Regular Rules Apply

Mr. Ehrlich's original proposal would have automatically exempted charter schools from most regulations governing district-run public schools. But the legislation passed would make charter schools subject to all state and local regulations, while allowing schools to apply for specific waivers of some of those rules.

Under the measure, staff members at charter schools would be considered district employees, and would remain part of districtwide collective bargaining units. Charter teachers would have to be state-certified. And charter schools would receive funding "commensurate" with that of district-run schools.

Anna Varghese, the director of external affairs for the pro-charter, Washington-based Center for Education Reform, said the bill that Gov. Ehrlich had originally proposed would have given Maryland one of the nation's strongest charter laws. She said he should veto the one now before him because it is unlikely to yield schools that depart significantly from the state's regular public schools.

But Marc Dean Millot, the president of the National Charter School Alliance, a group representing state-based charter school associations, said the bill was better than nothing. "You've got to be pragmatic about this," he said. "Once you've got a law in place, you can try to improve the law."

Vol. 22, Issue 31, Page 19

Published in Print: April 16, 2003, as Maryland's Charter Plan Comes Up Short of Governor's Aspirations
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