WASHINGTON – Maryland’s charter school law was ranked seventh-weakest in the country in a new report that said the state gives local school districts too much control over charter schools.
The report by the Center for Education Reform, released Wednesday, ranked states on how well their laws promote the development of charter schools. A center official said Maryland was marked down because its law gives school districts “full control over that charter school.”
“I think this is the only law that I’ve ever seen that gives the authorizer the authority to recruit and hire and fire staff,” said Anna Varghese, the center’s vice president for external affairs. “In other states, the (charter school) governing board hires and fires its own staff.”
Under Maryland law, which took effect in July, local school boards are the only agencies that can oversee charter schools, whereas in other states, overseers can include state universities and independent charter school groups.
“Local boards, the districts, inherently dislike charter schools because it is like competition for them,” Varghese said. “It is basically like going into McDonald’s and saying, ‘Can I open a Burger King on your turf?'”
But the sponsor of the charter school law that passed last year defended it as “an excellent way to get started.”
“We don’t think it is weak,” said Sen. Paula Colodny Hollinger, D-Baltimore County. “We are going to give it an opportunity to play out and see if there are problems.”
Hollinger said that for the center to “negatively comment on something that hasn’t even had a chance to work is a little disconcerting.”
Montgomery County Community Superintendent Frank Stetson said there may be “some room for negotiations” but local school districts must have “some degree of oversight.”
“Board members have to analyze the applications and what it might mean for services for their kids,” he said. “They have to do that without abdicating their responsibilities to their kids.”
Maryland has only one charter school so far — the Monocacy Valley Montessori in Frederick County opened in 2002 when only Frederick and Montgomery counties had charter school policies.
The school’s founder, Leslie Mansfield, acknowledged that the state law has “legitimized” charter school programs and helped her school apply for federal grants. But she agreed with Varghese that the local district has too much control.
Maryland charter schools must “abide by every rule, regulation and policy that exists” or apply for a waiver of specific rules or regulations, Mansfield said.
“It’s difficult having to struggle to comply with rules and regulations that don’t fit you,” she said.
Joe Hawkins, former president of a group that tried unsuccessfully to launch the Jaime Escalante charter school in Montgomery County, said he does not think the state or county are “serious about charter schools.”
But Steve Mancini, a spokesman for the Knowledge is Power Program, said top officials in Montgomery County “have been open and welcome to idea of charter school” in the county.
The Escalante school group disbanded before the new law took effect, but Hawkins said he does not think the law will help the charter school effort.
“I didn’t see any flood of state support and interest in encouraging people to apply,” he said. “That is probably why Maryland ends up being ranked so low. In other states it seems like state officials seem to bend over backwards to help you.”
A Maryland State Department of Education spokesman said the state is “pretty active with encouraging submissions,” but would not comment further.
Despite shortcomings of the law, charter school advocates and state lawmakers remain optimistic.
“Success is what is going to make these relationships better ultimately,” Mansfield said. “The way to get the law changed is when the first two charter schools come up against barriers . . . then we can get an amendment to the law.”
-30- CNS 02-11-04