GIVEN THE WHOLEHEARTED support that so many people profess for the idea of charter schools -- taxpayer-funded, independently run public schools -- it is fascinating to observe how contentious the debate over Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s charter school bill has become. In truth, the dispute revolves not around the general principle but around two specific points. The first concerns unions: Although charter school teachers would be able to remain members of their current trade unions (and would be allowed to form new unions), the law would require them to resign from union bargaining units. This would exempt them from existing contracts or rules, making them, in effect, union members in name only. The second point concerns local school boards, which would lose their exclusive control over local schools. Under the governor's bill, the Maryland State Board of Education and Maryland's public universities would have the right to authorize and oversee charter schools' progress.

Broadly speaking, the governor's bill is on the right side of the controversy. The whole point of charter schools is that they should be free to experiment -- with curriculum, with teachers' schedules, with class organization, with everything usually controlled by unions and school boards. Elsewhere, state legislation that has not allowed charter schools freedom from the educational establishment has run into trouble, not least because that establishment often works strenuously against the schools' very existence. According to the Center for Education Reform, which tracks the charter school movement, there are 2,563 charter schools in the 29 states that do not require charter school teachers to be members of the state teachers' union and 134 charter schools in the 11 states that do -- which is hardly surprising. Given the choice, most teachers' unions, like most local school boards, prefer not to give alternative schools a license to compete. In Maryland's case, both the unions and the school boards could use the competition. The outstanding schools in some Maryland counties have long masked the poor performance of others, as well as the poor performance of minority students throughout the system. Although there have been many mistakes, charter schools in other states have proven in recent years that unorthodox methods can sometimes better serve disadvantaged students, even those whom the ordinary school system has given up on.

Still, no charter school bill should become a license for any group to take public money to run any kind of school it desires, without accountability to the taxpayers who fund it. The governor's bill rightly demands that charter schools be secular, that they meet the same assessment criteria as other public schools, and that they periodically renew their charters to operate. Somewhat murkier is the role that Maryland voters would have in this process. Neither the Maryland State Board of Education nor Maryland's universities are run by elected officials. The governor must do a better job of explaining how those two entities would be held accountable to Maryland's voters, who are, after all, Maryland's taxpayers as well.