ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland House of Delegates voted Tuesday to allow charter schools to form anywhere in the state, a move that could tap millions in federal funding for states that pass such legislation.
“No child in this state should be compelled to remain in a failing school by virtue of where they were born,” said Delegate John Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, bill sponsor. “The golden age of education will not come until we have real reform in the classroom.”
Charter schools are privately-run, publicly-funded schools with a unique focus or strategy.
Under the proposal, charter schools cannot charge tuition or have a religious affiliation. Public schools could become charter schools if at least two-thirds of the staff and two-thirds of parents with children at the school sign a petition and vote in favor of the move.
Opponents, including Delegate B. Daniel Riley, D-Harford, charged that charter schools take funding and top-notch students away from traditional public schools.
“On the surface charter schools look good, but I think it undermines the public school system,” said Riley, who teaches social studies at Magnolia Middle School in Joppa. “You take a lot of these high-achieving kids out of the regular classrooms.”
Delegate Charles Barkley, D-Montgomery, also a teacher, opposed the measure saying all schools should be regulated the same way.
The bill has the backing of the Maryland Board of Education and the Maryland State Department of Education.
“It would permit the communities to access federal dollars,” said Ron Peiffer, assistant state superintendent of schools.
Last year, the federal government distributed $95 million to establish charter school programs in states with charter school legislation. Grants were based on the size and number of schools established, with the average at $3 million per state, according to Melinda Malico, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman.
Although the Maryland education department backs the legislation, it does not see charter schools as a panacea.
“The research we’ve seen on charter schools is a real mixed bag,” Peiffer said. “Some of them are doing really well, and some are not. There’s not a certainty of high performance, just because you have a charter school.”
The Maryland State Teachers Association supports the bill, but only with clarifying amendments to protect teacher benefits and salaries and to ensure teachers would not be forced to work at a charter school.
Charter schools, in general, provide good opportunities for matching a teacher’s skills with the right school, said association President Karl Pence.
“Public schools can learn from charter schools. I don’t see them as a threat,” he said. “If you’re going to do something radically different, I think you should allow people to go to a more traditional school.”
If approved by the Senate and Gov. Parris Glendening, the bill would set application rules and open the door for counties that don’t already have a charter school policy.
A similar bill failed in the Legislature last session. But it has a better chance this year because of support from state Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick and new evidence that charter schools were successful in other states, Leopold said.
The bill also says the state Board of Education may overrule a county decision to reject a charter school, a clause that could affect a recent situation in Montgomery County.
Montgomery County adopted a policy allowing charter schools two years ago, and the school board received the first application last September, for a school named after famed California teacher, Jaime Escalante.
Superintendent Jerry Weast backed the Escalante school, which was designed to provide rigorous academic programs for “average” students, however, board members rejected it earlier this month, 5-3.
It was not unique enough and had other deficiencies, said board president Patricia O’Neill, who voted against it.
With a critical teacher shortage across the state, it could be hard to staff new charter schools. But that shouldn’t be a problem, Leopold said, because teachers are attracted to the smaller classes and opportunities for innovative programs.