Second grade teacher Alison Mercier works with student Mishal… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
The scene in the colorful kindergarten room at City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore seems straight out of the 1990s, when children didn't learn to read until first grade. The kids play make-believe and draw pictures on erasable boards, while a teacher stacks mats for napping.
The organizers of City Neighbors made the choice to be different from the nearby public school because they wanted to give children more time to grow. But that autonomy came after a lot of work.
If Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wins his old job back, he says, he would try to loosen some of the constraints on schools like City Neighbors. He believes charter schools should be freed from the city teachers union contract and should be able to choose their own principals.
Ehrlich identifies his ardent support for charter schools as the sharpest difference on education between him and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. But it's hardly the only education issue over which the two have differed. They have disagreed over who did a better job controlling the costs of attending state universities and who did the most to protect public schools from cuts. Each has reams of statistics aimed at undermining the other's claims of success on education.
When it comes to future plans, however, their rhetoric sounds more similar. O'Malley has maintained education funding during a period when many states have made significant cuts, and Ehrlich says he would try to do the same — although he acknowledges he would begin to reduce state aid to schools some.
Bobbi McDonald, the founder of City Neighbors, said her school and other charters are fortunate that Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso has welcomed charters.
"He is proud of all the work we are doing," she said. "He wants us in his portfolio, and we want to be there, but why does it have to be so painful?"
Ehrlich says he wants to give bodies other than school boards the authority to hand out charters to new schools. He says he would work toward providing more funding for facilities for charter schools, and make them independent of the collective bargaining process.
While O'Malley is not as vocal on charter schools, he says he would be open to any changes the state school board might propose for the charter law.
Four years ago, when O'Malley was challenging then-incumbent Ehrlich, education was not a major campaign issue. But since becoming governor, O'Malley has embraced education policy in a way he never did as mayor of Baltimore.
His growing interest appears to have been helped along by Maryland's schools being named the best in the nation by Education Week's annual Quality Counts study two years in a row. The College Board, meanwhile, ranked the state first in the percentage of students who take Advanced Placement examinations and earn scores showing a college-level mastery of the subject.
O'Malley's tenure has also been marked by wrangling with state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, a veteran who also served under Ehrlich. After failing in a public attempt to oust Grasmick, O'Malley appointed state school board members who have been more outspoken and involved in policy than previous members. Some of the new appointees have questioned Grasmick's approach during public sessions.
The relationship between O'Malley and Grasmick is still strained. When asked about it in a recent interview, O'Malley paused. He then said he thought they had worked well together as the state applied for Race to the Top, the federal competition backed by President Barack Obama in which states win education dollars in exchange for agreeing to changes in policy.
The state secured $250 million in the second round of the competition, in part because of O'Malley's agreement to support legislation extending the time it takes a teacher to get tenure, and requiring that student test data to be used in teacher evaluations.
The proposals put the governor in the difficult position of backing legislation that was unpopular with some of his most trusted supporters: teachers.
Ehrlich also said he would support the reform agenda in general.
"I think [education reform] has generally gone in the right direction. I think President Obama has done some good things in education," he said.
Will education funds face cuts?
What concerns many education advocates is whether the winner of the November election will begin cutting education funding to meet budget constraints.
Maryland's Thornton funding law, which was passed in 2002 to increase aid to school systems and provide more equity across the state, was intended to ensure that children born in poor jurisdictions receive an education equal to that of children born in wealthier areas. To reduce funding, the governor would have to ask the legislature to change the law.