ANNAPOLIS – State lawmakers agreed to study the charter school movement further this summer, after a bill to permit the schools statewide stagnated and died in a Maryland Senate committee during the last days of the legislative session.
The House of Delegates approved the bill, 119-16, on March 27. It then went to the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, which referred it to interim study on Saturday, instead of presenting it for a vote on the Senate floor.
Members of the Senate Education Subcommittee and other legislators will form a work group to learn more about the issue.
The summer study is unnecessary, said the bill’s sponsor, Delegate John Leopold, R-Anne Arundel.
“There’s no need for further study. There’s a need for action,” he said. “Maryland remains mired in inertia, afraid to buck the establishment.”
Last year, the federal government distributed $95 million to establish charter school programs in states with charter school legislation. Maryland cannot tap into this pool without the appropriate statute.
The average federal grant was $3 million per state, according to Melinda Malico, U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman. While Maryland has three charter schools, other states, like Arizona, have dozens.
“If we’re going to create a charter school program in Maryland by statute, it should be a program that could work and could help students in Maryland,” said Eric Schwartz, deputy executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, Tuesday.
“Adopting a state statute simply to qualify for those limited federal grants does not seem wise,” he said in written testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Charter schools are privately-run, publicly-funded schools with a unique focus or strategy.
Supporters praise the innovative programs and small class sizes in charter schools, but critics say they take funding and top-notch students away from traditional public schools.
Charter schools “represent the kind of choice people would like to have in education,” said Susan Tibbels, executive director of New Song Academy in Baltimore, a charter school with an emphasis on community involvement. “Charter school legislation would provide options and provide competition for public schools.”
“I can’t help but feel charter schools are just another opportunity to reduce assets for our public schools,” said Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s, who voted against the bill.
Delegate Charles Barkley, D-Montgomery, a seventh-grade math teacher, also opposed the bill, saying all schools should be regulated the same way.
State law does not prohibit school systems from adopting charter policies. Baltimore, home to three charter schools, has embraced the idea.
The Montgomery County School Board has been reluctant to do the same. It recently voted 5-3 to reject the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School, named after the renowned California teacher. It was not unique enough and had other deficiencies, said board President Patricia O’Neill, who voted against it.
Superintendent Jerry Weast endorsed the school, which was designed to provide a rigorous curriculum for “average” students.