Charter schools effort begins

Ehrlich vows aggressive campaign to see state law passed this year

Bills died in previous sessions

Privately run facilities would give parents choice, stir competition, he says

February 06, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. launched yesterday what he promises will be an aggressive campaign to establish a charter school law in Maryland, hoping to break an impasse that has foiled such legislation in years past.

After repeatedly watching charter bills fizzle in the final moments of General Assembly sessions, "We asked the question: Why can't we get this done? We want it, parents want it, teachers want it," Ehrlich said during a visit to Van Bokkelen Elementary School in Severn.

"The answer I've been given is that a collective lack of will has led to the failure of the General Assembly to pass what we need and want in the state," he said.

Making good on a campaign pledge, Ehrlich has put forth expansive legislation to establish nonreligious, tuition-free public schools that would be operated by private entities.

"The one thing you should understand," said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, "is that this bill is not to supplant or set aside the public school system." Still, a few of the bill's elements are sure to foster objections from some lawmakers.

The most contentious parts are those regarding which entities could authorize charter schools, what rights teachers would have and the accountability measures for the schools.

The governor said yesterday that he is willing to work with legislators on "friendly" amendments. "None of these particular issues is enough to kill the bill, in our view," Ehrlich said.

A charter school is organized by a private group but is part of the public system, funded by taxpayers and sanctioned by a specified "chartering authority." Maryland is one of 11 states without a charter school law.

The idea is to give parents -- especially low-income parents -- a choice, creating what proponents say is healthy competition within the system. Charter schools have increased freedom to set curriculum and policies.

Although Maryland's school systems have the authority to authorize charter schools (only one exists, in Frederick), it almost never happens. Without a state law, organizations cannot tap the federal and private money usually needed to establish new schools.

The federal government has more than $200 million available for charter schools. Ehrlich said his connections to the Bush administration, as well as the ties of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, would help land Maryland a substantial portion of that money.

Grasmick participated in yesterday's event, saying she is optimistic charter schools would find their place in state law this year. "We see a renewed sense of urgency," she said. "The administration is putting all possible clout behind this bill."

Charter school bills have passed the House of Delegates and Senate in the last two years, but lawmakers have never agreed on a final version.

"We would meet, and the other side was intractable," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's Democrat whose charter school bill has passed the full Senate the past two years.

The troublesome issues boil down to a few topics. Many House members want to make sure that charter school teachers would be unionized, and that chartering authority would be limited to local school boards.

Ehrlich's bill would allow teachers at charter schools to have collective bargaining rights but stipulates that they cannot be members of any other bargaining unit -- meaning they likely could not be members of the Maryland State Teachers Association. (Yesterday, Ehrlich noted that the MSTA, which backed Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor, "did not win the election.")

The MSTA is supporting Ehrlich's bill, with amendments. "It makes no sense in our book to divide people out in this way," said union President Patricia Foerster of Ehrlich's collective bargaining proposal.

She and others also worry about a section of the bill that would allow charter schools to be exempt from state education laws and regulations if the school's chartering authority approves.

By allowing a wide variety of groups to issue charters, including the state school board, county boards, institutions of higher education and "any other entity designated by the state board," Ehrlich's bill is structured to invite a maximum of federal dollars.

But this array is likely to make many lawmakers balk, said Del. Anne Healy, a Prince George's Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee. "There's a long history in Maryland of local control of schools, and yielding that to another entity is a sticking point," she said.

Lawmakers predict a charter school repeat this year, with the House and Senate trying to hash out a compromise at the end. Some say Ehrlich's backing could change the outcome.

"This is where the influence and power of the governor's office can be used," said Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel Republican whose charter school bill has passed the House five years running.

Yesterday in Severn, politics mostly stayed in the background as parents and educators listened to Ehrlich's pitch.

Carolyn Moody, vice president of Van Bokkelen's PTA, said she was "definitely willing to look at" charter schools. "I think we all should have options in life."

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