Gov. Larry Hogan defended his funding of education Thursday while also declaring that "our children deserve better" than the school options available to them.
The new governor is pushing for expansion of charter schools by loosening rules that some say hamstring innovation and for tax benefits of up to $200,000 for businesses that donate to private and public schools.
While Hogan said his proposals could help close the achievement gap among white and minority students, the legislation has been caught up in controversy over public school funding in the governor's first budget, now before the General Assembly. Lawmakers held hearings on his charter school bills Thursday.
At a news conference, Hogan said he wanted to correct false "rhetoric" and "misinformation" that he wants to cut education funding in the state. He also challenged critics to find more dollars for education.
"Just complaining about it or saying, 'Give us more money' isn't helpful," said Hogan, a Republican.
Hogan's budget has come under fire from educators, Democrats and some Republicans for not fully funding formulas for education. Hogan said Thursday that no governor fully funded all those formulas in his first year in office, and pointed out that his spending plan gives public schools more cash than any other budget in Maryland history.
He identified Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch as the key obstacle to passing his tax break plan for school donors.
Hogan said that in past years, the proposal had broad bipartisan support and passed the Maryland Senate but would continue to die in a House committee until Busch chose "to set this bill free."
Busch, in turn, said the governor was spreading misinformation.
"That's inaccurate information," Busch said, pointing out that school funding increases every year but should also keep pace with enrollment and rising costs.
"There's no superintendent, no county executive, who does not know their school funding has been cut," he said. "This is the type of political gamesmanship that really doesn't lead to the quality of debate we should be having."
Busch added that he didn't block the bill to give tax breaks to school donors. "Bills pass and fail on their merits," he said.
Busch said he and Hogan have a breakfast planned for Friday morning, where he expected education funding to come up. He vowed that the House Appropriations Committee would find $144 million to fully fund education formulas.
Delegates will begin voting within days on how they would change Hogan's $40.4 billion spending plan. The legislature can cut Hogan's budget but can only increase overall spending with the governor's blessing.
Hogan's closer ally in the General Assembly, Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, has suggested the governor offer to expand K-12 education funding in order to get his charter school bill approved.
Thursday's sparring came as state lawmakers held the first hearings on Hogan's legislative proposals.
Hogan said "it's an embarrassment" that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has ranked Maryland last among states with alternative school programs.
Hogan said his bill would grant schools more flexibility and financial stability.
Charter school teachers in Maryland are required to be in the state's teachers union, so principals must abide by their salary, discipline and other standards.
The schools, which are public but run by private institutions, do not have access to public money for construction costs. Their budgets are set by local school boards. And, like public schools, they can only hire teachers who are board-certified.
Hogan said the provisions have stifled the expansion of charters, leaving some parents in lower-performing school districts without enough options.
A decade after Maryland passed its first charter school law, fewer than 50 operate across the state. More than 30 are in Baltimore City, and many school districts have none.
Hogan's bill would also allow charter school operators to hire teachers who are not state-certified and exempt their workers from the state's teachers union. The law has drawn criticism from Maryland State Education Association.
"These are quality standards, and the law would weaken them," said Cheryl Bost, vice president of the organization and an elementary school teacher from Baltimore County.
Zachary Carey, a middle school science teacher at the City Springs charter school in Southeast Baltimore, said he opposes the provision of the Hogan bill exempting the schools from the collective bargaining agreement covering all Baltimore teachers.
"You would be removing the incentive to be a charter school teacher in Baltimore," he said. "You would not be granting the same rights and benefits of other schoolteachers in the city."
Hogan's bill also stipulates that local school districts would be required to give charters at least 98 percent of what they spend per pupil in traditional public schools.
The state's association of superintendents also opposes the bill, in part because it grants power to the state's Board of Education to override local decisions on whether to open a charter school.
Keiffer Mitchell, a Democrat and former Baltimore lawmaker who is Hogan's special adviser on education issues, described the charter school measure as just one way to address problems.
"It is by no means the silver bullet to solve all of our public education woes," Mitchell said. "A one-size, fits-all model does not work when it comes to education."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.