Charter schools stuck in political `quicksand'

Maryland Senate, House were unable to agree on legislation last year

February 07, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Advocates of competition in public schools took their case to Maryland lawmakers yesterday, but prospects for passage of the state's first charter school law are uncertain.

Three bills before the General Assembly would encourage local school systems to turn over government money to private groups to run public schools, giving those organizations broad authority to select curriculum, set policies and hire teachers.

School systems technically have that authority, but in practice it doesn't happen in Maryland because without a state law, organizations can't apply for federal and private funds necessary to start charter schools.

"Charter schools are public schools - public in every sense of the word," Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, said at a hearing in Annapolis yesterday. "Charter schools do introduce the element of competition into public education ... and the traditional districts respond."

Again this year, the stumbling block appears to be differences between the Senate and House of Delegates over specifics of a charter school law. Both chambers approved bills last year, but efforts to reach a compromise died in the final hours of the Assembly.

"There's a will to pass a bill, and we're willing to work hard," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat. "The problem is ... reaching an agreement."

Charter schools are public schools run by groups or institutions under 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 instructional programs, but their charters may not be renewed if student achievement doesn't improve.

Only Frederick and Montgomery counties have policies on how to handle charter school applications, and both school boards are considering applications from parent groups to begin programs.

The closest Maryland has come to charter schools are a few "quasi-charter" schools in Baltimore. Those schools - including Midtown Academy, New Song Academy and City Springs Elementary - have flexibility in instructional programs, but less freedom than typical charter schools.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee began considering two bills yesterday, and a House panel had a hearing on the lone House school bill last month.

One measure, sponsored by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat, is identical to last year's Senate bill. It would allow charter schools to be established by local school boards or the state school board.

A proposal by Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican, would let colleges and universities give groups permission to start charter schools.

The House bill, sponsored by Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel County Republican, would limit eligibility to schools identified as low performing.

"Charter schools have been stuck in legislative quicksand," Leopold said. "That's why I'm trying for a very limited bill, to get our foot in the door with charter schools for those children that are most in need of help."

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