Classroom choices for Maryland children must extend beyond traditional public schools, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said yesterday as he launched an education commission that drew immediate criticism over its membership and mission.
In particular, the state's year-old charter school law must be expanded and strengthened to provide more alternatives for pupils, said Steele, chairman of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. created the panel yesterday by executive order.
But the Ehrlich administration will not be advocating school vouchers, the lieutenant governor said, steering away from the divisive proposal that critics say drains money from public schools by allowing tax dollars to be spent on tuition at private schools.
"It's not something I'm pushing or the governor is pushing," he said. "Maryland is not ready."
Ehrlich, a Republican who supported vouchers as a member of Congress, first proposed the education commission during his campaign for governor, and announced plans for its formation in an address to county officials last month.
The governor disclosed the full membership yesterday, and charged the panel with ensuring that an infusion of money for education - an additional $1.3 billion yearly by 2008 under a law passed in 2002 - is spent wisely.
"We've seen some school districts with money underperform, and other school districts with relatively little money perform at very high levels," he said.
In addition to Steele, the panel includes five members of Ehrlich's Cabinet: state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick; Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr.; Business and Economic Development Secretary Aris Melissaratos; Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.; and Higher Education Secretary Calvin W. Burnett.
Among its two dozen other members are teachers, public school and higher education administrators and lawmakers. While none of the appointees represents the Maryland State Teachers Association, the influential union regularly criticized by the governor, two appointees are members.
Teachers union chief Patricia Foerster said the panel's makeup was troubling.
"The connections to public schools are fairly loose or distant, when you take a look at who is on the panel," she said.
Steele said he wanted to bypass the traditional educational establishment, describing how the commission would gather information for recommendations in areas such as teacher accountability and lengthening the school day and year.
"This commission will study Maryland's system through the eyes of children," he said. "Not unions. Not administrators. Not curriculum writers."
He said he hoped to gain insight from parochial, private and independent schools, and the home-schooling experience.
The governor's office denied the accusation that the commission was weighted against public schools. "All voices are represented on the commission," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "The bottom line is the focus is public schools."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a potential Democratic rival to the governor, noted that the panel had no city school system representative.
"It's been my experience in appointing commissions to have broad and inclusive membership, so that all views are shared," O'Malley said. "That's my view. But he's the governor."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, also a potential candidate for governor, said he feared the panel might undermine the work of the last statewide education initiative, the Commission on Education Finance, Excellence and Equity, headed by former Prince George's County School Board Chairman Alvin Thornton. That panel's work led to a $1.3 billion yearly funding package for schools enacted in phases.
"My fear all along was this was a ruse to weaken the recommendations of the Thornton Commission," Duncan said. "I hope it's not a stalling tactic."
In remarks to the commission, Ehrlich said money was only one factor in delivering quality education.
"I am looking to this group to develop an agenda for Maryland, a true agenda, for how we educate our children," he said.
Ehrlich spoke recently of the need for more charter schools, and the panel's suggestions are likely to include ideas to expand the number of groups that can authorize them. The vice chairman of the subcommittee examining school choice is Andy Smarick, director of the Charter School Leadership Council.
Despite a law passed last year, Maryland has just one operating charter school, and Baltimore City and Prince George's County refused to consider applications for institutions wanting to open this fall, said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network.
Other commission members with leadership positions include: Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Ohio-based education reform group Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and chairman of the accountability and growth subcommittee; Andrew C. Jones, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville and head of the school and community linkages subcommittee; former U.S. labor secretary and Tennessee senator William E. Brock, chairman of the global best-practices subcommittee; and Adela M. Acosta, principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Hyattsville and head of the school readiness and early childhood programs subcommittee.
For a complete list of panel members, go to www.baltimore sun.com/commission.