ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers considering two versions of proposed charter school legislation are divided over how much flexibility to allow the start-up schools, a point that has killed similar bills in previous years.
Charter school legislation passed the Senate Friday, while a House version is on hold in committee. Four years after the first attempt, prospects for either becoming law remain uncertain.
“They’re slim,” said Sen. Alexander X. Mooney, R-Frederick, sponsor of a freshly-killed charter school bill.
“50-50,” said Delegate James W. Campbell, D-Baltimore, chairman of the House education subcommittee that must approve the two remaining bills.
“It depends,” said Delegate John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, “on a good- faith willingness between the two houses to resolve the differences in the bills.”
Those differences center on how much flexibility the schools should be allowed. School boards and the state teachers union want charter schools to comply with the same financial and accountability requirements as public schools. Charter school advocates say those restrictions stifle their innovation and purpose, and are tantamount to hostile opposition.
Both chambers approved bills last year, but the two sides could not reach a compromise before the end of the session so the bills died.
Without a state law, the charter school movement has struggled in Maryland.
Counties already may establish policies to divert public money to the private schools, allowing them some flexibility in hiring, curriculum and budgeting. Only two counties have such policies, and only one application – in Frederick County – has been approved.
Thirty-seven states have charter schools. Maryland so far has none. The Frederick school was approved just last week and must now secure a building and enroll students.
A state law would help clear the primary obstacle charter schools face – start-up costs. It would allow charter schools to tap into a $200 million pot of federal money and apply for private grants.
This year, there is no particular reason to expect success, several lawmakers said. The decision-makers have not changed. Citizen involvement has waned. Budgets are tight.
But the state’s strained finances make this the right time to pass a law that would make federal money available, Leopold said.
“It’s doubly irresponsible not to pass legislation this year with a tight state budget,” he said.
The Senate bill approved Friday is more streamlined and flexible than the House version. It allows the State Board of Education to grant charters, giving applicants a way to bypass resistant school boards.
The House version gives chartering authority only to local school boards and allows only struggling public schools in danger of state takeover to apply.
Charter school advocates say both bills are too weak, but they prefer the more flexible Senate version. They say if local school boards have total control they could deny or revoke charters of promising schools simply because they oppose the charter school idea.
But the state teachers union and school board say they support the charter schools concept, but a permissive law could allow reckless spending of public money and leave teachers without union protections.
The most important thing is to pass a law – any law, Leopold said. Doing that means either the House or the Senate will have to give.
“We’ve done our part,” said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-Calvert, sponsor of the Senate bill. “We are gung ho and ready to go. The problem has been on the other side.”
On the House side, any bill will have to pass the House Ways and Means Committee, where Chairwoman Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery has not scheduled a vote on the House bill, and said she doesn’t like the language in the Senate bill.
“It’s on hold right now,” Hixson said, adding that she is adamant that the local board have solo jurisdiction. “We’re pretty stuck to the language.”
There are lots of reasons compromise has failed for so long, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., a charter school proponent.
Local school boards don’t want to give up control and are afraid of being outperformed by upstarts, she said. Teachers unions don’t want to let schools set their own pay scales or hiring policies. Strong interest groups drown out grassroots voices. Whatever the reason, Maryland lags behind other states, she said.
“We’ve got lots of theories,” Allen said. “But it truly has been strange.”
Since Minnesota passed the first charter school law a decade ago, 2,400 schools have opened nationwide, enrolling more than half a million students. The District of Columbia has 42 charter schools, according to The Center for Education Reform.
Anything can happen in the remaining three weeks of the legislative session, Dyson said.
He is optimistic, he said. But only to a point.
“We’ve played around for so long,” he said. “I think if it doesn’t happen this year, it’s not going to happen, period.”