The General Assembly appears closer than ever to approving Maryland's first charter school law, joining the nation's push toward competition in public schools.
Several bills before the Assembly would encourage local school systems to turn over government money to private groups to run public schools, giving those organizations broad authority to pick curriculum, set policies and hire teachers.
School districts technically have that authority, but in practice it doesn't happen in Maryland because without a state law, organizations can't apply for the federal funds necessary to start charter schools.
"Maryland is given high marks in education for our accountability and testing, but the thing that's holding us back is a lack of a charter school law," says Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and vice chairwoman of the committee that has thwarted past efforts. "I think that we are ready to change that."
Thorny disagreements remain over how the plan would work, and resolving them is not certain by the end of the 90-day legislative session. Nevertheless, many advocates of the charter school concept believe the Assembly will pass a law this year.
The two bills with the greatest differences are up for a hearing this week before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Charter schools are public schools run by groups or institutions with contracts giving them public funding as well as varying degrees of independence from rules and regulations. They're typically free to hire their own teachers and pick their own instructional programs -- but their charters may not be renewed if student achievement doesn't improve.
Since the nation's first charter school was opened a decade ago, the movement has grown to more than 2,000 charter schools nationwide in 33 states and Washington, D.C., serving more than 500,000 students.
Though charter schools were initially considered part of the conservative education agenda, support has grown for them in more liberal circles -- including teachers unions -- as a preferred "school choice" alternative to private school vouchers.
"I know this sounds threatening to the public schools," says Redmond C.S. Finney, the Gilman School's retired headmaster and a former city school board member. "The problem is that in public school districts, you have more or less the single blueprint too often."
Maryland is one of only 14 states without a law authorizing charter schools -- a requirement for groups to apply for the more than $150 million in federal funding for start-up costs. President Bush has proposed expanding that.
"Without the federal money, we can't afford to start the school," says Leslie Mansfield, a Frederick County parent who is hoping to start a prekindergarten through eighth-grade charter school based on the Montessori model. "That's why we need a law."
So far, five Baltimore schools represent the closest that any Maryland system has come to charter schools. These "quasi-charter" schools were begun in 1997 by the city school board as a condition of settling a long-running special-education lawsuit, requiring more innovation within the Baltimore district.
"We have a lot more flexibility," says Diane Issel, director of the Midtown Academy in Bolton Hill. "We're able to select how we want to teach the children, and the main thing is that we're accountable for how they perform."
Enthusiasm, small classes
Founded by parents and other residents of the Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill neighborhoods, the school relies on a mixture of research-based instructional techniques and enthusiastic teachers. Class sizes are kept to 20 pupils, and families are required to volunteer 90 hours per school year -- performing such tasks as cleaning classrooms on weekends and making window curtains.
"This is an example of communities coming together," says Eyitayo Enitan, whose fifth-grade son has been at Midtown since the school opened. "The parent participation has been good, and that's very important to school success."
But parents and teachers at the 140-pupil school, which serves students in kindergarten through sixth grade, are quick to emphasize that they're not a true charter school.
They're still renting their school building from the Corpus Christi Catholic Church and raising their own money to pay for renovations -- something that would likely change if a state law let them apply for federal dollars.
The city also pays Midtown far less than its average per-pupil spending, forcing the school to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. The parents are needed to clean the building on weekends because the school doesn't employ custodial services.
Midtown has emerged as one of the best-scoring schools in the city system -- ranking near the top of an analysis of reading achievement performed by The Sun last spring. But nationally, charter schools have had a mixed record, with researchers seeming to publish contradictory studies almost monthly.