Md. Debates Charter School Bill
By Amy Argetsinger
Although local districts already are allowed to open the experimental, taxpayer-funded academies an increasingly popular model of education reform only Baltimore has done so. The General Assembly bill could lead to a charter school boom in counties across Maryland that currently do not allow them.
As lawmakers opened debate on the bill yesterday, charter school advocates complained that the proposed guidelines are still less permissive than policies of other states, primarily because the power to approve or deny charter school proposals would remain with local school systems. But some legislators said they fear the rise of experimental taxpayer-funded academies would drain resources from struggling public schools.
"Most of us believe a strong public school system is key to maintaining a democratic society," said Del. Clarence Davis (D-Baltimore). "How do you think this will impact [that] concept?"
The debate over the charter school guidelines which the state must adopt for its charter schools to be eligible for federal funds reflects Maryland's continuing ambivalence about an education trend that has caught fire in most other parts of the country, including the District.
Under the proposed law, a public school would be allowed to convert to a charter school if 60 percent of parents and staff voted to do so. And school systems would be required to fund approved charter schools with the same per-pupil dollars they give regular public schools.
But charter-school boosters grumble that the guidelines are too restrictive and will stifle the spirit of experimentation that is at the heart of their movement. They complain that the bill binds Maryland charter schools to most of the regulations that govern regular public schools for example, requiring that charter school staff belong to the unions. Private, parochial or home schools would not be allowed to get a charter.
Bill sponsor Del. John R. Leopold (R-Anne Arundel) said the restrictions are necessary to get the bill past the General Assembly. "If I had my druthers, I would allow more autonomy, more flexibility," he said. "But this puts us on the road to reform."
Much of the debate in a House Ways and Means Committee hearing yesterday focused on the role of a proposed "advisory panel," which would help the state Board of Education hear appeals of local school districts' decisions about charter school applications.
Charter school advocates want the advisory panel to have the power to grant charters. But state and local school officials say they see no need for such a panel at all.
Many education officials are urging the General Assembly to move cautiously, offering general support of the bill but recommending several minor amendments to tighten the guidelines slightly.
Comments at yesterday's hearing suggest that legislators are more likely to tighten the restrictions than loosen them. Many lawmakers seemed to think the 60 percent vote required for turning a public school into a charter school was too low, and they expressed concern about the local district's responsibilities to the remaining 40 percent of families who may want to transfer their children to another school.
Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's) noted that some communities may change their mind a few years after turning their school into a charter school. "Is there a mechanism for getting out of it?" she wondered. "Or is this a one-way street?"
Others noted that charter schools remain untested and unproven. Some said the limited amount of federal funds don't give Maryland enough incentive to pass a bill encouraging the creation of charter schools.
Davis said he fears public schools will lose to charter schools in the competition for private grants. "What bothers me is that foundations will favor charter schools because they're the new thing," he said.
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