FREDERICK -- The Frederick County school board is trying this summer to draw up a final charter-school policy. While the board deserves to be commended for taking this step, no policy it adopts is likely to result in the establishment of charter schools. Why? Because Maryland does not have a charter-school law.
Thirty-eight states have enacted statutes allowing charter schools. Only 14 states, Maryland among them, have not. Maryland legislators twice have had an opportunity to do so and twice they have backed off from taking the step. They will have another chance this fall.
The legislation is desperately needed because charter schools are desperately needed. They are a new and unique form of public school. Traditionally, public schools have been planned, built and operated by the community's local school board, which has full and ultimate authority over what goes on within them.
A charter school, however, is the result of a contract drawn up between a group of individuals and the chartering agency, which may be the local board, the state department of education, a university or any other agency authorized by the state. Charter schools, therefore, operate independently, although they are held accountable for their main purpose: the education of children.
That is why the state must pass a strong charter school law. To leave the matter in the hands of local school boards is to lose the best shot at the independence and innovation that charter schools bring. A charter school negotiates freedom from the bureaucratic regulations that hamstring most public schools. For a local school board to issue contracts for charter schools, therefore, is the equivalent of Wal-Mart making the rules under which Target may operate.
Currently, more than 2,000 charter schools serve more than 500,000 students nationwide. Their local school boards did not start those schools, even though the boards always have had the power to launch them.
School boards have little interest in charter schools. When parents, teachers and community groups decide that charters are needed, which is what happened in Frederick County, they need to have another place to go to get a charter approved.
A charter law implemented by the state of Maryland could allow the excellence of the University of Maryland system, for example, to act as a public agency to review and approve charter applications on behalf of the state. Another alternative would be to follow the lead of other states and allow the state board of education serve as a chartering body.
Charter schools have already enriched public education. This year, Washington's student of the year was a young man who had missed two years of high school because he dropped out. He achieved his excellence by returning to the public system in a charter school.
If they are to further enrich public education, charter schools must be independent entities, free of the bureaucratic whims of local school boards. They cannot succeed if the school board retains the exclusive right to create and manage them.
The Montgomery County school board, for example, has kept groups of parents and teachers jumping through bureaucratic hoops for years without ever approving their charter applications. Needed schools that would serve kids who don't succeed in regular schools are being kept in limbo.
Only a strong state law will get those schools off the ground.
In Frederick County, more than 100 teachers, parents and interested community members have come together to pursue the goal that has so far eluded the residents of Montgomery County. We are committed to public education, not private, but we want our public schools -- as well as the rest of Maryland's -- to be the best. And studies show that when strong charter schools are available, all public schools improve.
Only a strong state charter school law will create that improvement. Frederick County has taken a strong positive step by creating a policy on charter schools. It is now time for the state of Maryland to take the next positive step: the passage of a strong charter school law.
Michael Scott Cain, a professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville, is the co-director of the Center for Charter Schools in Frederick County.