Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration fleshed out his signature education and crime-fighting initiatives yesterday, vowing to dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the state and make "gun-bangers" pay for their crimes.
The two bills were unceremoniously introduced at the last minute late Monday night in the state Senate. Both pit Ehrlich, the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, against powerful interests and are likely to generate significant debate in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Yet the new governor did little to brief key lawmakers beforehand.
On the education front, Ehrlich is pushing lawmakers to pass one of the strongest charter school bills in the country.
Ehrlich's proposal would remove a key obstacle for many charter schools -- approval from a local school board -- by allowing universities, the State Board of Education and other entities to also charter the alternative schools.
He also would allow teachers at the tax-supported charters to operate outside the auspices of the state's teachers union, a provision that even charter school supporters doubt will pass muster with Democratic lawmakers.
Nationally, the charter movement has grown from one school in 1992 to more than 2,700, according to the Center for Education Reform, a charter advocacy group. The schools operate with public money but outside the control of local school systems, touting their private school atmospheres and close relationships with parents. In the District this year, 40 charter schools are serving more than 11,000 students, officials said. Virginia has eight charter schools, all outside the Washington area.
In Maryland, the trend has not caught on: There is only one charter school in the state, a Frederick County school that opened last fall. An effort to start one in Montgomery County has twice been rejected by the county school board, although negotiations have recently been revived.
Statewide, efforts to pass a comprehensive statewide charter school law have failed in recent years, making Maryland one of only 10 states ineligible for a portion of more than $200 million in federal aid.
"It's like any other monopoly -- [local school boards] are in essence reluctant to create competition to themselves," said Dilip Paliath, an Ehrlich aide who drafted the bill. "We think our bill increases options for parents, particularly parents who can't afford tuition for private schools."
Joseph Hawkins, president of a group trying to start the Jaime Escalante Charter School in Silver Spring, said Ehrlich's proposal would be a boon to the movement.
"That's what most charter proponents refer to as the kind of bill they'd like to have," he said. "It provides more opportunities to obtain a charter."
He said the teachers union exemption could save money for cash-strapped charters, but doubted that it would remain in the bill. "It won't fly," he said. "I think that if you want to make progress with charters in Maryland, you're going to have to compromise on that issue."
Patricia A. Foerster, the president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said she generally supports charter schools but is bothered by Ehrlich's legislation, not just the provision forbidding charter teachers to join the state union but by the broad chartering authority that she said usurps local control over local schools.
Ehrlich's bill would limit those entities eligible to start a charter school to "an individual, a group of individuals, a public institution of higher education, an existing public school or a nonprofit corporation," Paliath said, adding: "This is not intended to be a profit-making venture."
But the experience in other states suggest otherwise: In Florida, for instance, for-profit corporations create nonprofit foundations to obtain the charters, then hire themselves to run the schools in what has become a big and booming business.
State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, was annoyed that the governor had not seen fit to brief her on the bill before dumping it in the hopper. Her take on some of the more expansive and controversial provisions: "I don't think that's going to happen."
Similarly, Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said the governor had not consulted him about his crime initiative, even though Frosh chairs the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee where the bill will be heard.
Dubbed Project Exile for a program in Virginia that Ehrlich credits with reducing the murder rate in Richmond, the governor's proposal tweaks current law to increase penalties primarily for convicted felons who are caught with a gun.
Current law imposes a five-year mandatory sentence for those convicted of a violent crime who are later caught carrying a handgun or semiautomatic weapon. Ehrlich's bill would expand that to those who carry long guns and would offer a five- to 20-year penalty.
Perhaps the most controversial provision involves a unique Maryland law that allows a three-judge panel to reconsider and reduce mandatory sentences. Ehrlich's bill would prohibit such reductions for certain gun crimes, and judges have fought ferociously in the past to fend off challenges to their authority.
But the guts of Virginia's Project Exile -- an agreement by federal prosecutors to try gun cases and send convicts to out-of-state prisons -- cannot be legislated. Ehrlich said he is working with federal and local prosecutors.
The governor said his proposal will have a serious effect on the "bad guys who do a cost-benefit analysis every morning" and decide whether to carry a gun.
But a recent study questioned the effectiveness of Virginia's program, and Frosh said he does not expect that Ehrlich's version will have much impact. "This is Project Exile 'lite,' " he said. "The suggestion is it's going to make a sweeping change in crime in Maryland. That's hard to see."