Senator introduces sweeping education bill package

A freshman state senator has introduced four bills that seek to strengthen the autonomy of charter schools and boost teacher quality in public schools, including a measure that would add "ineffectiveness" as a basis for dismissing teachers.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a former teacher who served as special assistant to city schools CEO Andrés Alonso before he was elected to represent the city's 46th District in November, is co-sponsoring the legislation that mirrors recent dialogue in Baltimore. The city houses the majority of the state's charter schools and passed a groundbreaking contract last year tying teacher promotion to proven results in the classroom.

The city teachers union said that it's premature for the new legislator to take aim at reforms already under way, particularly as a statewide council is in the process of developing a new evaluative method that will make 50 percent of teacher evaluations based on student performance.

Among the most controversial pieces of legislation supported by Ferguson is a bill that would add "ineffectiveness" as a determination for a superintendent's recommendation to dismiss or suspend teachers from their jobs. The clause would join the other reasons outlined in Maryland's Annotated Code: incompetence, insubordination, immorality, willful neglect of duty and misconduct.

Another bill, also cross-filed by Ferguson and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg from District 41, would allow public charter schools to hire teachers based on "mutual consent," rather than the forced placement of certified educators in charter schools.

Ferguson said he believes that effective teachers will be a key point in discussions as state lawmakers and school officials prioritize during a fiscal year with a $1.6 billion shortfall.

"If we're facing a deficit, the discussion around who is teaching kids will bubble to the surface," Ferguson said. "We have agreed in Maryland that effectiveness has value in evaluating teachers. … It can't be all benefits without having some kind of accountability to it."

Alonso agreed. "Effectiveness should be a factor in any dismissal of teachers. Why would a district have to let go effective teachers and keep ineffective teachers, if the purpose of the law is to improve educational outcomes?" he said.

But Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union and a member of the group shaping the state's new evaluation method, said that the new city teachers contract has fostered a collaboration between school leaders that Ferguson is attempting to legislate.

Ferguson's bill package, which also includes a "Parent Empowerment Act" that would allow parents to petition for an overhaul of school governance, could set back the trust built during contract negotiations, she said.

"I don't think you can legislate this kind of fair, equitable instrument without working with teachers," English said, adding that she thinks the teacher effectiveness bills could lead to subjectivity. "It would bring about a lot of distrust that we worked so hard to assure our membership we were working for."

Ferguson also sponsored a bill that would grant charters the first-right-of refusal for public school buildings and relieve them from paying property taxes on private facilities. The charter facilities bill, along with the "mutual-consent" hiring bill, were lauded by operators who said the state could flourish with the autonomy. The state's charter laws are often criticized for being too restrictive.

"Charters are charged with bringing innovation to the school system, and to do that, we need a lot of flexibility," said Bobbi MacDonald of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools. "Our partnership in Baltimore City is fine, but statewide we need stronger relationships so that charters can fulfill their mission."