Hogan says he'll push for charter schools

The Baltimore Sun
Will there be more charter schools in Maryland?

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan said Wednesday that he is likely to push for changes to make it easier to open and operate charter schools.

"We're going to do everything we can to expand the use of charter schools. It's a great idea," Hogan said, adding that he has discussed the issue with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"We shouldn't be last in the nation in charter schools," Hogan said.

His remarks follow the release of a report to the legislature Tuesday that said the state's laws are constraining the growth of charters, which have been particularly popular in low-income communities with struggling schools.

"We have the weakest charter school laws in the nation," said Miller. "There's certainly room for improvement."

Miller said he doesn't "anticipate a major shift" in the current law, but rather amendments to make it work better.

The report, written for the General Assembly by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy, recommends creating an independent board to consider and approve applications to open charter schools. Currently, only local school boards can do that — and critics say that in some counties, the boards seldom say yes. Currently, local school systems bear the cost of charter schools, so approving them means increasing spending or cutting funds for existing schools.

Since the state's 2003 charter school law was passed, 47 charter schools with 18,000 children have opened in five counties and Baltimore City — with the majority located in the city.

Charters are privately operated, publicly funded schools that are open to any students in their jurisdiction. If more students apply to the school than there are places, the charter must hold a lottery to decide who will be admitted.

Charter school advocates have chafed under the law, which requires charters to hire school system employees and adhere to districtwide policies. Maryland is the only state that requires teachers at charter schools to be members of the union. Charters also have struggled to find buildings and to renovate them because school systems are not required to help pay for facilities.

But some supporters of charters have argued that the Maryland law's restrictions also have been its strengths. Few charters in the state have been plagued by financial or administrative mismanagement, as has been seen in other states where charters have little oversight, the report said.

The report concludes that charter schools have performed as well as regular public schools, and slightly better in middle school math.

The report's author, Dennis McGrath, told the Maryland school board Tuesday that if the legislature believes changes are needed, he would recommend including a state subsidy for charter facilities and clearer language on how much charter schools should receive per pupil.

Requiring charters to follow the same policies and fill out the same paperwork for central office as other schools can bog them down in the bureaucracy, said Jason Botel, executive director of the education advocacy group MarylandCan, who formerly ran the highly successful KIPP schools in the city.

Members of the state school board indicated they were not ready to take a position on the report — and their support could matter to legislators. Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she will wait to see what recommendations the board makes before deciding whether to introduce legislation.

Del. Anne R. Kaiser, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said she would not support taking authority away from local school boards to authorize the charters, but could support other changes to the law that would increase the flexibility to operate the schools.

Education leaders immediately criticized both the report and its recommendations.

Betty Weller, president of the union that represents most Maryland teachers, said she has no faith in the report, which she said falls short of what the legislature asked for. It "shouldn't be used to change anything in our already strong charter school law," she said. She said the teachers union would oppose an independent authorizing board.

The Maryland ACLU's primary concern is equity. "A key question is whether the amount of funding that charters receive is greater than traditional schools. The report didn't answer that question," said Bebe Verdery, the group's education director.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education would be likely to fight some of the changes as well.

John Woolums, a spokesman for the organization, said an independent authorizing board should not be empowered to make decisions that have financial consequences for school districts.

liz.bowie@baltsun

erin.cox@baltsun.com

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