ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Friday to charter school legislation, but the measure still faces a series of hurdles before groups would be able to start the secular schools funded by the public.
With Senate passage likely, the true test will be whether the House passes the same measure – and more importantly, whether Gov. Robert Ehrlich will approve a compromise version of the bill he pushed hard throughout the session.
“We want something with substance,” Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said after the Senate vote. “I don’t think it’s a given that we’d pass a charter school bill just to pass a charter school bill.” The legislation that passed tentatively on Friday – a proposal from Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s – has been described as a “watered down” version of Ehrlich’s bill. Ehrlich’s version was one of the strongest to reach the General Assembly in recent years, allowing for a larger number of chartering authorities, including the Maryland State Board of Education and colleges and universities. The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee turned down his proposal with a 7-4 vote earlier this week. The Senate panel instead approved Dyson’s bill with 10 amendments. That proposal, in contrast, leaves local boards of education as the main chartering groups. It allows the state board to create a “model policy” for local boards to emulate, but says state officials can only approve the schools upon appeal. Charter schools have been hotly debated in the past, with proponents arguing they offer alternatives to students in underperforming school districts.
Maryland is one of just 11 states without a charter schools law. Friday’s Senate vote was expected to draw some of the same heated reactions, but the issue passed without comment. “I thought (the bill) would be immediately laid over,” a surprised Dyson said afterward. But Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, who heads the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said lawmakers accepted many of the administration’s amendments to Dyson’s bill. For that reason, Hollinger said, she wasn’t surprised senators held back. “I think they’re also anxious to see what comes out of the House,” she added. The House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony last week on two charter school proposals – Ehrlich’s bill and another from Delegate John Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, which closely matches Dyson’s proposal. Leopold was optimistic Friday afternoon that the House would approve his measure, and that a conference committee would be able to iron out any differences if a final version emerges from the Senate. And Leopold said he isn’t worried about an Ehrlich veto, either: “I think it would be highly unlikely to expect that.”