State Senate should back charter schools

January 30, 2002|By Gregory Kane

"DON'T JUST do something, stand there!"

For the past two years, on legislation that would allow Maryland to vie for the $200 million in federal money allocated to start charter schools, this state's Senate has been doing nothing and standing there.

Last year, Del. John Leopold of Anne Arundel County sponsored legislation that would permit Marylanders to apply for federal funds to establish charter schools. He did the same the year before. The House of Delegates passed Leopold's bill both years. The legislation hit a snag when the bills went to the state Senate.

"The two major opponents of this legislation have been the teachers unions and the local school boards," Leopold said last week as he stood outside the House Ways and Means Committee chambers. "The Senate -- and the House, to a certain extent -- have responded to those concerns."

Charter schools are public schools liberated from the pedagogical bureaucracy that passes for effective administration in most places. The schools are publicly funded and may be operated by parents, teachers and community leaders. In some cases, private companies run charter schools.

Minnesota passed a charter school law, and the first one was started there 10 years ago. Other states followed. The charter school steamroller has grown to over 2000 schools serving 500,000 students in 33 states. Some 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws. Maryland is not among them.

The state's senators obviously know who their bosses are. Not the people of Maryland, but teachers unions and lobbyists. Read last year's testimony of Baltimore Teachers Union legislative director Cheryl Glenn before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

"The Baltimore Teachers Union, as well as our national federation, the American Federation of Teachers, accepts the global concept of charter schools on certain conditions."

Uh-oh. That phrase "on certain conditions" should be a caveat about what follows. Glenn continued.

"We agree that charter schools are developed for the purpose of allowing public-funded schools to exercise reasonable flexibility. It is important to carefully define what is acceptable as a `charter' school. Our position is that `charter' schools should only be accepted and approved if they operate as part of the local public school district; do not discriminate in terms of the `types' of students they accept; and finally only if they meet the standards developed by the AFT."

Everybody got that? As long as the omniscient American Federation of Teachers sets the standards, then charter schools are perfectly hunky-dory, according to Glenn and the BTU. Parents and community groups get shunted aside. That folks might be starting charter schools to free themselves of the constraints of a teachers' union must have escaped the folks at the BTU and AFT.

BTU President Sharon Blake elaborated further on the union's position, and clarified Glenn's reference to discriminating "in terms of the `types' of students [charter schools] accept."

"All public school children should be allowed to attend those schools," Blake said of charter institutions. Charter schools, Blake added, should not be able to bar students who don't meet a certain reading or math level.

City College grads may feel chills galloping down their spines reading Blake's position. It was such thinking that drove highly motivated, academically gifted students away from the school in the early 1970s and turned it into a Thug Academy so awful it almost closed its doors.

But Blake made it clear the BTU is not categorically opposed to charter schools. As long as the school isn't run by a private company and meets those nettlesome AFT standards, the union is for them."[Private] charter schools would help dismantle public education," Blake said. "There's no evidence they do any better than public schools in similar educational situations. Two of the three [Baltimore] Edison schools had their MSPAP scores go down." The AFT Web site referred to studies showing no improved student performance at charter schools in Texas and Arizona.

Leopold's bill is geared to allow charter schools for the state's students who now attend its worst public institutions.

"These are the children who most need our assistance," Leopold told members of the House Ways and Means Committee. "Maryland has done an injustice to [those students'] families by forcing them to wait."

Maryland's parents may continue to wait -- unless they form a union of their own and visit Annapolis during the first four months of each year to show senators their voting power. Meanwhile, the hem-hawing Senate will continue to do nothing and stand there on the school charter issue.

"There's a saying," Leopold said after he finished his testimony, "that where the heart is willing, it will find a thousand ways. Where it is unwilling, it will find a thousand excuses."

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