By andrei Blakely
ANNAPOLIS – Despite the failure of charter schools legislation in the last two General Assembly sessions, private involvement in the public school system seems to be in Maryland for good.
State officials, this year, found outside help from a private company to assist low-performing schools, while legislators still have not been able get a charter school bill through the General Assembly.
Last week, the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee listened to the merits of charter school legislation, while the House Appropriations Committee was briefed on the three low-performing Baltimore schools that were privatized by the state.
The necessity of improving the educational levels of many students has not subsided and the debate over the existence of a private presence in the public school system is likely to remain during the upcoming legislative session.
“When the public school system fails our schools we have to look at private schools or charters for assistance,” said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
During the 1999 legislative session, House and Senate bills passed their respective assemblies, but none became law. In the 2000 session, both the House and Senate bills were sent back to committee.
The chambers disagree over who has the power to approve the charters. The House has given local school boards control over proposals. The Senate bill creates separate chartering authorities.
Some legislators believe a bill that gives authority to school boards is weak and not much of a change from what already exists, said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County.
Montgomery County, the only jurisdiction in Maryland with charter school legislation, gives the school board the control. The board recently denied the first charter school application it’s seen, which would have created an international baccalaureate school for Hispanic and African-American students. The decision is under appeal.
The board would like to maintain control of the approval process because it wants to control the administration of public dollars, said George Margolies, staff director at the Board of Education.
At the state level, the need for help was so great that officials took it upon themselves to seek private help. The schools that resulted are not “charter” schools, which typically are specialized schools formed by parents, teachers, community-members and an entrepreneur, but reconstituted. But both are run by private companies.
Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, bypassed the Legislature when she contracted New York-based Edison Schools Inc. to take over three low-performing Baltimore schools: Gilmor, Furman L. Templeton and Montebello elementary schools. They were privatized by a state initiative. The trio of schools was cited as a success story to the members of the Appropriations Committee last week.
The state will determine in January whether to continue the program or extend it to more of the 93 remaining state-determined low-performing or reconstitution eligible schools.
Still, legislators are looking at ways of creating a more encompassing program that involves private influence in the school system.
“Education is a topic throughout the states. As prosperous as we are, why we can’t place money in the right places, we don’t know,” said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
There are merits in creating charter schools, agree the State Department of Education, National Charter School Movement, State Teachers’ Association and Maryland Associations of Boards of Education.
But state officials said they do not know if it is the proper time to institute a charter school program.
Nationally, some charter schools have not improved student and pupil achievement. Other schools have closed because of inappropriate funding or management problems.