ANNAPOLIS – LaMont Turner has a vision for an old shopping plaza on Route 40 in Havre de Grace. He sees classrooms and computer labs replacing store checkout lines, a place where students stay for longer school days, in smaller classes, and receive a bilingual education.
Turner’s idea is to create a charter school with a mission separate from the local school system, but with public money.
“We want to give children a chance at the future . . . give them a hand-up and not a hand-out,” he said. “We want to offer innovative ways to excel.”
The concept may be clear in Turner’s mind, but the reality is that he needs the Maryland General Assembly to put a charter school law on the books this session. The trouble is, few can agree on what the Maryland law should say.
The Senate and House of Delegates each have passed different bills regulating charter schools, but because the versions vary, lawmakers will likely end up in a committee seeking compromises. Even then, there’s no guarantee Gov. Robert Ehrlich will agree with what emerges.
The bills’ sponsors say this year’s charter school proposals are better than having no law at all, and they hope Ehrlich will sign off. But others disagree, calling for the governor to veto the House and Senate bills if they aren’t amended.
“A weak law will do more harm than good,” said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network. “Why pass a bill that’s going to keep things status quo?”
A main hang-up is how many authorities should have the power to approve charter schools. Both chambers’ bills leave local school boards with that task, allowing the state board to act only on appeal.
Ehrlich’s original proposal, which died in the Senate and was gutted in the House, allowed for multiple chartering authorities, including the Maryland State Board of Education and colleges and universities.
Gardner said she’d rather start lobbying for a stronger charter school bill next session than see Ehrlich sign a law that keeps the chartering power local. These bills would probably bring few charter schools to Maryland, she said.
Some county school boards have been reluctant to approve charters, as in the highly publicized debate over the Jaime Escalante Charter School proposal in Montgomery County.
Joseph Hawkins, who submitted Escalante’s charter application only to have it twice rejected, said the process took so much out of him he has simply lost interest.
“My energy level is gone,” Hawkins said. “It’s time for somebody else to lead.”
Officials at the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., a longtime charter school proponent, earlier this week called for Ehrlich to reject the Senate and House bills.
The Center for Education Reform counts eight states with laws similar to Maryland’s proposals, in that they do not provide for multiple chartering authorities and their teachers are subject to the same laws as public school employees.
“The schools that have come out of those laws . . . are not your typical model (for charter schools),” said spokeswoman Mary Kayne Heinze. “They are not schools that you would find some real innovative and groundbreaking (ideas).”
It’s not that those states can’t provide innovative educational opportunities, Heinze said, but their laws are more limiting. She said some groups in those states have set up charter schools mainly to separate disruptive students from regular classrooms.
Ehrlich stopped short of saying whether he’d veto a bill that does not allow for multiple chartering authorities, but he said he is still lobbying for his original proposal. State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, another charter school supporter, continues to meet with top lawmakers to drum up support, Ehrlich said.
“If we could get a little progress on the multiple chartering authorities, I think it would be a strong bill,” Ehrlich said. “We do think there needs to be one additional authority if the local board is hostile.”
Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, a sponsor of the charter school bill that passed the Senate, said he hopes the governor will sign the compromise bill.
Lawmakers have not accepted multiple chartering authorities in the past, he said, so they’re not likely to do so this year.
“I think it’s really the best way to go at this point,” Dyson said.
Turner said he understands educators’ concerns about the bills under consideration. Ideally, he said he’d favor a law with more chartering authorities so that “every (applicant) will have a fair shot.”
But Turner hasn’t withdrawn his support for the charter school bills altogether, because while Maryland is without a charter school law, he won’t be able to access federal dollars for his new school.
Turner’s plans are moving along while he watches what happens in the General Assembly. He said he’s started talks with Harford County school officials, picked out the location, and even has a list of potential names, including New Glory Academy and Eagle’s Wings Academy.
And Turner said his vision for the charter school has always been there: “to give the best education for the students.”