Officials with the College Park Academy in Prince George’s County wanted to reserve spots for the children of University of Maryland employees who live in the city. The Frederick Classical Charter School sought to hire teachers who might lack state certification but were skilled in grammar, logic and rhetoric.
Each request was denied because of what charter school operators describe as the rigid requirements that Maryland imposes on the publicly funded, independently run schools.
But Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wants to loosen those requirements, with legislation that would give charter schools greater oversight of hiring and firing, more power to set admissions criteria, and increased access to public funding.
Hogan’s bill would more closely align the charter school effort launched under Maryland’s last Republican governor with what is typical of charter schools in other states. It has drawn quick and fierce opposition from teacher’s unions and public school officials but a more mixed reaction from Democratic legislative leaders, who say the bill might offer Annapolis a rare chance at bipartisan compromise.
“This is one that I think is not a Republican issue or Democrat issue,” Hogan said during a visit to a Baltimore charter school last week. “It’s not a liberal or conservative issue. It’s about kids and providing more opportunities for them to get a good education.”
The number of charter schools in the United States has nearly doubled in the past decade, increasing from 3,400 to more than 6,700, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The alliance says Maryland’s strict charter rules discourage some of the nation’s best charter school operators from coming to the state.
There are 47 charter schools currently operating in Maryland that were founded since the state began allowing them in 2003; another five existing schools have converted to charter operation. In neighboring Washington — where charters are embraced and educate 44 percent of the city’s public school students — there are 112 charter schools, the alliance says. The alliance estimates that there are now 1,184 charters in California and 653 in Florida, the states with the largest number of the schools.
“Many of the high-performing networks have stayed away because they are not given the autonomy that they want,” said Michael McShane, a research fellow in education policy at the American Education Institute.
Most elements of Hogan’s bill, which will be the subject of a House Ways and Means Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday, are standard operating procedure in many other states, McShane said.
The legislation would give charter school operators greater autonomy to hire and fire teachers — who under the current rules are employed by local school districts, not by individual charters. Teachers would be exempt from state certification. Charters would have a greater say over who attends their schools, with the option of giving preference to students based on geography or having a low family income. Charters would receive a guaranteed and higher percent of per-pupil funding at the state, local and federal level. They also would be able to compete with traditional public school districts for school construction funds.
Charters, which would still have to be approved by local school boards, would be able to ask the State Board of Education for a “comprehensive waiver” from most laws that govern traditional public schools. The bill would not allow waivers of audit requirements, assessments that gauge student achievement or rules governing the health, safety or civil rights of students or employees.
The state board also would be able to authorize charters to operate following an appeal of a local board’s decision. Currently, a final decision goes back to the local board after a state appeal.
“It enables us to experiment and help kids get more options,” said Hogan, who as a top aide to then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) was called in on the final day of the 2003 legislative session to help negotiate the state’s current charter law with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
The new bill is one of two proposals Hogan has made to support parents who opt out of traditional public schools. The other would provide a tax credit to corporations that contribute to private schools.
“Sometimes we’re in the traditional public school system and we’re restricted from how we can do things,” Hogan said. “We’ve just seen charter schools around the country reach kids and turn their lives around, ways that we haven’t been able to do in the [traditional] public schools.”
President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have embraced the expansion of charter schools. Hogan said Duncan — who joined him at the Empowerment Academy in Baltimore last week — called him the day after he was elected governor to offer his support for expanding charters in Maryland.
But Democrats in Annapolis, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, are worried that provisions in Hogan’s bill that would free charter schools from adhering to state labor contracts would amount to “union busting.”
Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chair of the Senate education committee, also questioned the provision that would allow teachers not to be certified, which he likened to pulling people “off the street” and placing them in front of a classroom.
“When you lower safeguards, the people you hurt are the kids,” Pinsky said.
The Senate is willing to pass at least some parts of the charter bill, Miller said, so long as Hogan agrees to increase funding for all public schools at the levels that were planned before he took office. The governor has proposed trimming some of that increase to help bridge a revenue shortfall.
Miller predicted a compromise on Hogan’s bill, and added that the governor “will be pleased.”
But House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) — who has vowed to restore the education funding that was left out of Hogan’s budget proposal — said the charter bill will be reviewed on its own merits.
Busch, a former teacher, said lawmakers are willing to listen to suggestions for improving charters. But he added that there “hasn’t been a large outcry to change charters in Maryland in the last eight years.” And he expressed reservations about allowing charter schools to receive some of the state’s school construction money, which already is in high demand.
“If there are ways to make our charter schools better, we’re open to that suggestion,” Busch said, “but I don’t think we’re open to the idea of reinventing charter schools that already seem to work pretty well in collaboration with our public school system.”
Any effort at compromise by Democrats in the legislature risks strong pushback from the Maryland State Education Association and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, both of which wield considerable influence in Annapolis.
Prince George’s School Board member Verjeana Jacobs, who is president of the state board association, said she agrees that parents should have options. But she disagrees with the proposal’s sweeping changes, including allowing charters to give enrollment preferences to students with special needs or who live in a certain area.
“That is cherry-picking,” she said. “Talking about preferences is a slippery slope.”
Officials with the state teachers’ union said their opposition to the bill focuses on three areas: funding equity, education quality and enrollment. They accused Hogan of seeing charter schools as a panacea for improving student achievement and argued that many traditional public schools perform as well as — or better than — charters.
Sean Johnson, the assistant executive director for MSEA, said Hogan’s bill would “lower quality, accountability and equity for students in public charter schools, and it would put at risk some of the dollars for traditional public schools.”
He pointed to cases of fraud and fiscal mismanagement of charter schools in the District and in several states and questioned why Maryland should aspire to make its rules as flexible as those jurisdictions.
But for Spear Lancaster, whose Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation operates four charter schools in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, the need for more flexibility is clear.
Without the power to fire, Lancaster said, he has had to keep ineffective teachers longer than he has wanted. In the case of one teacher who seemed overwhelmed by his students, the school added an assistant teacher instead of hiring someone new to take charge of the class.
When the local school board ruled that a classroom in one of the schools was four inches too small, Lancaster said, the foundation spent $15,000 to extend a classroom wall. That is exactly the kind of bureaucratic requirement that charter proponents say their movement was designed to avoid.
At Lancaster’s newest school, in Laurel, there are signs of innovation everywhere. The school gymnasium has a rock-climbing wall. First-graders spent one recent class building landscapes using Legos. Older students work in an ecology lab outfitted with a massive pool that is filled with fish and turtles.
Lancaster said he wants to be able to focus more on providing these types of educational opportunities, and less on “roadblocks and nitpicking.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.