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Maryland Senate panel approves watered-down charter school bill

A Maryland Senate committee voted Tuesday to approve a watered-down version of a bill proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) that was designed to increase the number of charter schools in the state.

Hogan's original bill made sweeping changes to the state's charter law, giving schools the ability to hire and fire teachers, doing away with a requirement that charters fall under state collective bargaining rules and giving charters more say over who can attend.

The amended bill does not change hiring rules, but it does provide some leeway on enrollment. It also offers some flexibility regarding certain state educational requirements for charter schools that have been in existence for at least five years, are in good financial shape and have a student achievement record that exceeds the local school system’s. Those charters would be exempt from specific requirements about scheduling, curriculum, and professional development.

“The bill isn’t perfect, but it offers a path toward giving charter schools more flexibility — a definite improvement from the current law,” said Erin Montgomery, a spokesman for Hogan. “The governor plans to work with legislators in the House to strengthen the law.”

The charter school bill is one of two education proposals Hogan is pushing. The other provides a tax credit to corporations that donate to private and public schools. Both bills are opposed by the state teachers’ union and the local school boards’ association.

“Nobody is going to be completely happy,” said Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), the chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which voted on the charter legislation. “I haven’t been happy since I saw this bill. There has been compromise, and I think we have addressed concerns.”

The Senate panel voted 10 to 1 to approve the bill, with Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) dissenting. Kagan said she believes the Maryland State Board of Education has too much power regarding charters because it can overrule decisions about charters made by a local school board.

“I think local control should be respected,” Kagan said.

Earlier in the day, the Senate approved three of five bills that were proposed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) in response to a study of the state’s business climate.

Senators agreed to create an advisory council to review new state regulations and assess their impact on small businesses, require some state employees to take customer service training and examine how public universities might make money by selling the findings of their researchers.

They are expected to soon consider the remaining two bills, which would restructure the state’s economic development efforts and expand apprenticeship programs.

The House has already passed all five of these bills but will need to approve any changes that senators make.

Senators on Tuesday also began discussing two tax-relief bills proposed by Hogan, one that would eventually allow the state’s smallest businesses to not pay personal property taxes and another that would expand an income-tax exemption for retired military veterans.