Maryland senators are planning to strike key provisions of a bill proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to increase the number of charter schools in the state, dealing a major blow to the governor’s plan to provide parents with more education options.
Senate leaders said Friday that the measure that could make it to the floor this week will be vastly different from the one Hogan proposed. The governor’s sweeping charter reform plan would have given charter operators the power to hire and fire, to set admissions criteria and to receive more public funding.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said senators formed a work group to study changes to Hogan’s bill. A similar work group in the House is headed by Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery. The Senate group is considering a measure that would offer charters some flexibility, give them more say in who can attend their schools and clearly define whether teachers at charter schools work for the local school boards or the charter schools.
“It’s progress,” Miller said.
But charter school advocates disagree. They have argued for years that Maryland’s requirements are some of the worst in the nation and have kept charters from opening in the state. They said the changes being considered by the senators will do little to encourage more charters in Maryland.
“I don’t see new schools being able to open,” said Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, a national charter school advocacy group that is pushing for Hogan’s bill to remain intact. “The ones that have opened have done so with great resistance.”
The major stumbling block, advocates said, is the Senate’s plan to remove a provision that would have freed charter schools from adhering to state labor contracts. The state teachers union strongly opposes the move.
Under Hogan’s bill, charter school operators would have 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 percentage 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 would still have to be approved by local school boards, but the schools 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.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said the governor’s proposal turns the current law “upside down.” He said he hopes to make “minor” changes to the current law, not the “wholesale reversal” that he said Hogan seeks.
Pinsky expects the bill to allow charters to set aside seats for siblings and for it to clarify language regarding the state’s role in appeals of whether a charter can be established and of decisions made by the local school system. It also will clarify whether teachers with provisional certification can teach in charters, he said.
Tom Neumark, president of the board of trustees at Frederick Classical Charter School, said many advocates are asking “what’s the point of changing the law” if charters will not have greater access to public funding, be able to hire their own employees and have the ability to go to the State Board of Education to authorize opening a school. Such provisions “make the difference between a good law and a bad law,” he said.
Keiffer Mitchell, a special adviser to Hogan, said the Hogan administration and charter advocates have been working with senators to come up with a compromise that will help to expand the number of charters in Maryland.
Mitchell said Pinsky has offered amendments to the bill that look “to take the current law backwards. And that’s not what the governor wants, he wants to see charters expanded.”
Mitchell indicated that there is still hope for significant charter reform in Maryland. He said negotiations have not “begun in earnest” and estimated that a final decision on the bill will be made April 13, the last day of the 90-day legislative session.