Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan delivers his State of the State address Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)

Anybody paying attention to public education in Maryland could see this coming: The state’s Board of Education is beginning conversations about how to help chronically low-performing schools — and some of the solutions include expanding charter schools and vouchers.

In an era when alternatives to traditional public schools have become increasingly popular around the country, Maryland has been slow to adopt them, including charter schools and voucher programs. But the surprise election of a Republican, Larry Hogan, as governor in the 2014 elections portended new moves in that direction.

Hogan championed school choice, and he appointed to the board choice supporters Andrew Smarick, a former partner at Bellwether Education Partners and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, along with Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Smarick was elected as president by panel members earlier this year, a few months after the Democratic-dominated legislature approved a Hogan-backed voucher program — the first in Maryland — which provides public funds for students from low-income families to pay tuition at private schools and religious schools.

First implemented this past fall, a total of $4.3 million in funding — called BOOST scholarships from the program called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today — was awarded to 2,039 students, and Hogan recently proposed increasing the funding from $5 million a year to $10 million over several years. There are several dozen voucher or voucherlike programs in more than 20 other states around the country and the District of Columbia.

Now, as first reported by the Baltimore Sun, Smarick said the board is having initial discussions about how to help troubled schools, and among the topics are more vouchers and charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are operated independently of traditional school districts. The Maryland Department of Education says there are now 49 public charter schools in Maryland, enrolling about 20,000 students in the four districts that have permitted charters to open: Baltimore, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Frederick counties. By way of comparison, Washington, D.C. has nearly 40,000 charter school students.

Andrew R. Smarick was appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education by Governor Larry Hogan.
(Maryland State Board of Education)

In an email, Smarick said the board is “just beginning conversations” about the future, but that he is sure that it would need the legislature and the governor to agree with whatever plans it devises. The legislature would have to approve any plan for a statewide voucher program, and currently, Maryland law permits only traditional school districts to authorize charter schools. Given the reluctance of districts so far to authorize charters, charter supporters in the legislature would have to pass a law allowing other authorizers.

Smarick’s email said:

“The state board’s role in developing an accountability system under ESSA and the Kirwan Commission’s charge give Maryland an opportunity to seriously address the state’s persistently low-performing schools. However, in order for the state to take a significantly different approach than in the past, we’ll need the legislature and governor to approve new authority. So this will need to be a total team effort. Everyone wants to help Maryland’s low-income boys and girls; now we need to collectively figure out the best ways to do that. The state board is just beginning conversations about this, so there are no specific plans or proposals. But I, personally, want to encourage the state’s policymakers to act boldly on this front. Maryland should be so very proud of its many educational accomplishments but we must recognize that every year, thousands of students are assigned to struggling schools. Those families deserve — and I believe it’s the state’s responsibility to provide them — improved options.”

As for vouchers, he said:

“Speaking for myself, I think a carefully designed scholarship program can be a terrific part of Maryland’s strategy for helping low-income boys and girls. The legislature deserves great credit for the [BOOST] program it created.”

The Sun reported that Finn has suggested that Maryland should consider creating a state-run school district that would take over chronically troubled schools, an increasingly popular move around the country. In the three states that have operated such school districts for years — Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan — most of the schools have been turned into charters, prompting critics to say that they are being used as a way to convert traditional public schools. A number of other states have plans to create similar districts, though voters in Georgia’s November elections rejected Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to create one.

Smarick was appointed to the board in 2015. He has been involved with education policy for many years, serving as deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and at The White House Domestic Policy Council. He has worked for Congress and the Maryland state legislature, and he co-founded the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The panel members who elected Smarick as president this past July also elected as vice president S. James Gates Jr., a  recognized physicist and professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. Gates, who was first appointed to the board in 2009 by then Democratic governor Martin O’Malley, abruptly resigned this past October, charging that Hogan was compromising the independence of the Board of Education. Gates’ resignation letter specifically cited an executive order issued by Hogan dictating that each new school year would start after Labor Day. The letter said in part:

“I do not now confidently work in an environment I perceive as supportive of education nor respects the independence of the board. When I accepted to serve, it was my understanding the laws of Maryland were very clear about the independence and the authority of the State Board of Education with regard to policy in this domain. I agreed to serve under those conditions.”

 (Correction: Smarick is a former, not a current, partner at Bellwether.)