A Feb. 6 article incorrectly described charter school legislation sponsored by Maryland Del. John R. Leopold (R-Anne Arundel). Leopold's bill would make teachers in a public charter school county employees, automatically part of a large collective bargaining unit. Those teachers would have the option of joining or remaining in a union that negotiates contracts on their behalf. Nowhere in the country is a charter school teacher forced to join a union. (Published 2/12/03)

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vowed yesterday to win passage of a charter school bill this legislative session after years of infighting and failure, and made clear that he was more than willing to take on the powerful teachers unions to do so.

"We want to be fully accountable and work with the Maryland State Teachers Association, but they didn't win the election, did they?" the new Republican governor said at a news conference at an Anne Arundel County school. "It's a new day in Maryland, and it's time for a charter school bill to pass."

If Ehrlich's proposal overcomes opposition -- not only from teachers and county school boards but also from members of the heavily Democratic General Assembly -- it would be among the strongest charter school laws in the nation. Ehrlich would give charter school advocates broad authority to set up schools and the autonomy to run them.

Ehrlich also announced the creation of a commission, to be headed by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, to study how Maryland public schools teach and to find innovative solutions to intractable problems such as social promotion.

On the charter issue, the freedom Ehrlich's proposal calls for is what has doomed previous bills, which did not make it through the Maryland General Assembly.

Ehrlich's plan would allow the State Board of Education and universities in Maryland, in addition to local school boards, to approve the creation of charter schools. His bill also would give charter school teachers the ability to opt out of joining a union.

"We don't want to fight the MSTA," Ehrlich said after the news conference. "But we will if we have to."

Patricia A. Foerster, president of the state teachers union, made clear that her organization has no intention of backing down. The union's political action committee wields significant clout in Annapolis. Since November 1998, it has donated more than $750,000, largely to Democratic candidates, a Washington Post analysis shows.

"We didn't win the election," Foerster said. "And this is a comprehensive [charter school] bill. It's got a lot of good qualities in it that are valuable on their face. They ought not to be lost over an issue that ought not rise to this level of concern."

To Ehrlich and his supporters, charter schools would create opportunities for students trapped in struggling schools, give parents choice and spur competition.

"Charter schools work. They are effective. They improve math and reading scores. They increase parental involvement and student attendance," Ehrlich said. "That's a pretty good combination of results."

Charter schools opponents worry that they siphon public money and the best students out of public schools, leaving them weaker.

"My thinking is, 'Let's get the schools we already have fixed and straightened up first,' " said Howard Tutman, president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs. "I'm all for choices, but will the funding of our schools now be diminished?"

Since 1992, the charter school movement has taken off throughout the United States. Charter schools now total 2,700. And 39 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that make charter schools eligible for as much as $225 million a year in federal funding.

All but 10 states allow charter school teachers to avoid joining unions, and a handful of states -- including New York, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan -- allow groups other than local school boards to open charters.

The Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick County is currently the only charter school in the state. A proposal to open a charter in Montgomery County has languished for years but may be revived after Superintendent Jerry D. Weast this week visited a successful charter school in the Bronx.

Norman Quist, a member of the Frederick County charter school's board of directors, called Ehrlich's proposal to open up chartering authority to institutions other than school boards "a superb idea."

"We don't want to have to be saddled with the institutional structure and philosophy that Frederick County has," he said.

Many Democratic lawmakers said yesterday that Ehrlich's bill would be dead on arrival. And Del. John R. Leopold (Anne Arundel), a Republican who for years has offered charter school legislation, said the teachers unions might be more receptive to his proposal because of Ehrlich's strong stand.

Leopold's bill would mandate that charter school teachers join local unions.

Still, Ehrlich's hand was strengthened yesterday by the presence of State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who said she not only was a personal friend of Ehrlich's but also a strong supporter of his charter proposal.

Staff writers Ylan Q. Mui, Vikki Ortiz, David Snyder and Nancy Trejos contributed to this report.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. talks to students in Anne Arundel County, where he went to talk about charter school legislation.Sad'e Barnes, 9, smiles at a compliment from the governor.