ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich claimed victory when a compromise charter school bill passed in the waning hours of the General Assembly session Monday, but much of the rest of his education agenda remained undone.
In the end, Ehrlich’s proposal to revamp the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School stalled, and he is still struggling to find money to fund sweeping public school reforms over the next several years.
Nevertheless, the governor emerged smiling from a late-night negotiating session on charter schools, telling reporters that top lawmakers had reached a deal he would sign into law.
The charter school bill allows local boards of education to approve essentially private schools that use public funds. The measure passed the Senate, 33-4, and the House, 98-30.
“We just got a lot done in there in 20 minutes,” Ehrlich said after meeting with lawmakers. “This is a contentious issue, and it’s time we move on the bill.”
At issue Monday night was how many authorities should have the power to grant charters to schools. Ehrlich’s original proposal, which was diluted in committee, would have given that power to multiple groups, including local school boards, state school boards and public colleges and universities.
The compromise leaves most of the authority with local boards, but allows the state Board of Education to grant charters on appeal and serve as a mediator between the applicants and county officials.
The agreement seemed to please lawmakers who have worked to pass charter school legislation for the past several years. Delegate John Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, said the final votes marked “the end of a 5-year battle.”
“It does satisfy some of the state board’s wishes,” added Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. “Although it does not give (state board members) direct authority, it does satisfy an appeal.”
Some weren’t as convinced the following morning, but they agreed to work with the measure, anyway.
“I would rather have had a strong law, but this is what we have,” said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network. “It’s not ideal, it’s not even close to ideal. It’s what we got.”
Meanwhile, the governor’s plan for the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County would have allowed the Department of Education to oversee instructional programs for about 250 juvenile offenders there, taking over for the Florida-based contractor Youth Services International.
The money would have paid for upgrades, personnel and new resources at the state detention center, more than tripling the $1.9 million spent annually.
A 31-page review of the school last year, issued by the state Department of Education, indicated educational services there are not up to Maryland standards.
Considering the state’s budget woes, both chambers agreed unanimously to delay the transfer of the Hickey School until July 2004.
Ehrlich vowed Tuesday to find funding next year. “It will be in our budget,” he said. “We campaigned on it, and we’re very serious about it.” Ehrlich’s other education-related setback this session was watching a House panel dump his plan to tie slot machine revenue to increased funding for public schools. Last year, the so-called Thornton Commission endorsed a program to equalize funding for poorer jurisdictions over five years, costing the state about $1.3 billion. The Thornton recommendations are funded in the 2004 budget, but Ehrlich said officials need to study the proposal over the next several months and decide whether the state should prolong its objectives. Ehrlich blamed the lack of money, in part, on lawmakers who voted against his slots proposal. “We’re forced now because of the demise of slots to look at stretching it out,” Ehrlich said. “Not one person who voted for Thornton last year offered a way to fund it this year.”