ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers are making a new attempt to pass charter school legislation this year, despite the fact that bills regulating the public, secular schools have stalled for the past four consecutive years.
A new bill introduced this week in both General Assembly chambers gives county boards of education the power to approve charters for the schools and set their admission standards.
Sponsors of the Public Charter School Act of 2003 hope this year will be different because Gov.-elect Robert Ehrlich supports the idea. And, considering the state’s budget problems, some believe legislators might be more willing this year to approve legislation that could provide access to federal grants.
To date, Maryland is one of just 10 states without a charter school law, according to the Center for Education Reform in Washington.
Since 1999, Maryland lawmakers have sponsored bills regulating charter schools, but each has been unsuccessful. Last session, House Bill 131 passed both chambers but died after being referred to a conference committee.
Without a law on the books, proponents say those interested in opening charter schools in Maryland are unable to apply for federal funding for start-up costs, and students enrolled in underperforming schools are left without many options.
“This is the year for it,” said Sen. Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel. “This year, we need the federal dollars.”
Passing the bill would indicate the state recognizes charter schools as a legitimate alternative to public education, said Delegate John R. Leopold, R- Anne Arundel.
Leopold, who has backed legislation since 1999, said he, too, hopes the bill will pass.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that with the support of a governor who is an advocate of reform, we should be able to make progress,” he said.
Ehrlich clearly supports charter schools, a spokesman said Friday, but the governor-elect is not commenting on this year’s proposal.
Despite legislators’ optimism, both supporters and opponents of charter schools see problems.
“There’s no meat to this bill at all,” said Anna Varghese, director of external affairs for the Center for Education Reform. “It’s a prime example of what should not reach the governor’s desk.”
Varghese said she objects to language in the bill that places the power to designate charters with local school boards. The bill also says if a county board denies a charter school application and the state board reverses the decision, the state shall direct the local board to grant the charter.
But according to Varghese, that provision still is restrictive.
The Center for Education Reform supports legislation that allows various entities to establish charter schools, such as universities and public officials, Varghese said. She added that she’d rather see no legislation passed than the bill proposed.
“States that start off with weak laws, it’s a really, really difficult process to get them improved,” Varghese said.
The Maryland State Teachers Association might be more willing to support legislation that holds charter schools and their employees to the same standards as public schools, said President Pat Foerster.
But at the same time, Foerster questions whether charter schools are really the answer for students who are struggling in the classrooms.
“I think it is important, first of all, to ask the question: Exactly what type of problems do we have (in public schools) that charter schools can make such a huge difference in students’ achievement?” Foerster asked.
“Are we sure we cannot deal with some of the issues that charter schools are supposed to deal with, within the regular school setting?”
Some supporters of the legislation say MSTA’s concern is that parents will lose faith in public schools.
“If the (charter) schools do better than the public schools, it makes them look bad,” said Sen. Alexander X. Mooney, R-Frederick, whose district is home to Maryland’s first and only charter school.
The school in Frederick was approved last year, thanks to a county law that diverts public money to private schools. Outside of Frederick, other boards have been reluctant to approve charters, as in the highly publicized debate over The Jamie Escalante Charter School proposal in Montgomery County.
The school was denied an application several times.
Mooney said it’s time for Maryland to catch up to other states: “It’s something we’re behind in doing.” – 30- CNS-1-10-03