Governor announces push for more charter schools

Steele will lead review of state education policy

August 22, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is launching a fresh effort to bring more charter schools to Maryland, and he has asked Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to travel the state to collect education information and develop classroom recommendations.

Steele will head a commission that will begin its work next month, Ehrlich announced yesterday during a speech to hundreds of local officials at the Maryland Association of Counties' summer conference. Plans are not settled, but Ehrlich wants the panel to examine what he called "the substance of education policy" in Maryland, including charter schools, teacher quality, early childhood preparation and the "best practices of other states."

In particular, the governor said, he would like to modify a 2-year-old law that allows private groups to establish alternative schools with taxpayer dollars. Maryland has only a few charter schools operating or ready for approval. Continuing a national Republican push, Ehrlich said he would like to see many more.

"Charter schools are part of the wave of the future," the governor said.

Data raise questions

The governor's advocacy comes as the latest data from the U.S. Education Department, uncovered by the American Federation of Teachers, shows that fourth-graders in charter schools have lower test scores than their counterparts in traditional public schools. Critics say the data raise questions about the effectiveness of the schools, which are offered as an alternative under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Steele said yesterday that he had not reviewed those results and was not concerned about the experiences of other states.

"I can only attest to charter schools in Maryland," Steele said, "and they just kicked in."

Ehrlich said he wanted the panel to complete its work in six months, but Steele said later he thought it would take longer.

Changes to the existing charter school rules are not needed, said Patricia Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. Schools would welcome the chance to highlight their accomplishments that a statewide review would offer, she said.

"There are a lot of things going on that we would like to tout," she said.

As word of the planned Steele commission trickled out in recent days, Democrats criticized the idea as little more than a way to raise the lieutenant governor's political profile by allowing him to travel the state.

"This is the continuing saga of the Ehrlich administration: useless commissions and photo opportunities is the way they govern," said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "After almost two years in office, people are looking for some kind of positive results from this administration

In his 32-minute address and in a subsequent news conference, Ehrlich also indicated that the state's budget climate was improving, and that he hoped to broker an agreement on rising medical malpractice insurance rates for the General Assembly to address in a special session later this year. He also said that the stalemate over slot machine gambling would have repercussions in Maryland's 2006 elections.

Maryland governors have often used their speeches at the annual conference - the largest gathering of county and state officials of the year - to launch new programs or set agendas for the coming months. But Ehrlich said last week that he would stick to basic themes, and some officials said yesterday that the governor's address was light on specifics.

"Did I miss something? Did you all hear anything of substance here?" said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a likely contender for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Ehrlich thanked the counties association for supporting his slot machine plan and said the money generated through gambling would help county officials run their governments. "You, MACO, have more at stake in this debate than any other group," he said. "We should really get this done now."

Last week, Ehrlich rejected House Speaker Michael E. Busch's offer to place a constitutional amendment legalizing slot machines on the November ballot. Asked yesterday if he would continue to push for a slots bill when the Assembly convenes in January, Ehrlich said, "I'm done wasting time."

"The people will speak in 2006 on this issue," Ehrlich said, a veiled threat to Busch and other Democratic leaders.

Budget gap

Despite a recent economic recovery, Maryland faces a projected $830 million gap between revenues and expenses for the budget year that begins July 1 next year. Ehrlich said yesterday the gap will soon shrink because the state will have more unspent money from the recently concluded budget year than expected. He would not provide an exact figure.

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