Republican Gov. Larry Hogan took his pitch to expand charter schools on the road Wednesday, appearing alongside the Obama administration's top education official at a Baltimore school at a time when both seek increased funding for charters.
Hogan intended the visit to the Empowerment Academy in West Baltimore to draw attention to his proposal to give charter schools more flexibility and encourage more to open.
"It's not a Republican or Democrat issue," Hogan told reporters after the event. "It's not a liberal or conservative issue. This is about kids, and providing more opportunities for them to get a good education."
Hogan and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan met briefly behind closed doors before they emerged to read "The Little Engine That Could" to elementary school students. Hogan aides said Duncan offered the Obama administration's help to expand charter schools in the state.
Duncan said he did not have details on how Maryland's charter school program could improve, but "I'd encourage Maryland to continue to look at it. ... Of course, we have a lot more applicants than dollars available, and it's very, very competitive."
The federal budget proposed this month by President Barack Obama includes an extra $120 million in federal grants for charter schools. It is not clear whether the Republican Congress will approve the money.
Hogan's plans to change charters also face obstacles.
Earlier Wednesday, Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller suggested a "compromise" with Hogan: Put more money into the budget for public schools, and the Democratic General Assembly will pass Hogan's bill to expand charters.
"We're not going to be able to make changes until we bring funding back to public schools," said Miller. He said he agrees with Hogan that the state's charter school laws need to work better.
Leading Democrats say Hogan's budget would slow the growth of education funding so much that it would require districts to make deep budget cuts.
The new governor, who ran on promises to curb state spending, said education was his top priority and said his budget would give more money to schools than any other governor has.
"If Senator Miller has some solutions on how we can find more money, we're all ears," Hogan said. "So far, we've heard a lot of 'give us more' without any discussion about where it's going to come from. We're not raising taxes."
The deal proposed by Miller was not welcomed by Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch, one of the most vocal opponents of Hogan's spending plans for education.
"I think we should do what we believe is right down here," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with horse trading."
Miller has said he will back changes to the state's charter school laws. Busch has been skeptical.
"We've had a pretty successful system here," he said, "so people need to explain to me what needs to be changed."
More than a decade after Maryland allowed for charter schools, only 47 operate in the state — the vast majority in Baltimore. Charter schools receive public funding but operate privately. Maryland law gives local school boards significant control over them.
Hogan's bill would require local school boards to give charter schools more money, exempt charter school teachers from the state's teachers union, and allow their operators to go directly to the state for money for construction.
It would also let charters hire teachers who are not state-certified, allow the state's Board of Education to approve charters over the objection of local school boards, and give the schools more discretion in deciding which students can attend.
"You can't make them exactly like regular schools, or we won't have any different results, right?" Hogan said. "You have to have flexibility."
Some advocates for charter schools say Hogan's proposal offers modest changes that eventually could deliver significant benefits.
"We think it doesn't do anything dramatic in the short term, but it gives local operators choices about things that they haven't had before," said Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Baltimore Inc., which operates two charter schools in the city. "It may encourage quality operators from around the country to come to Maryland."
Del. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat, stood alongside Hogan on Wednesday as the governor said improving charter schools was not a partisan issue.
Hayes, the vice chairman of the board of the Empowerment Academy, has not signed on to Hogan's bill.
He said the school has flourished under existing law but could benefit from the funding provisions the governor has proposed.