State legislators to hear testimony on contentious charter school bill; Even those who embrace public school alternative find fault with legislation


Lawmakers will hear testimony today on legislation that would govern the founding of charter schools in Maryland and that could open the door for federal aid for them.

Maryland is among about 15 states without the regulations required by the federal government for this aid.

Charter schools are public schools operated by a group or institution with a contract, or charter, and with varying degrees of independence from school bureaucracies. They have become a rallying cry for reformers who see them as key to improving public schools by increasing competition for students and providing models of better ways to teach children.

Although legislation is not required to establish such schools -- Baltimore City has charter-like schools -- it is necessary if schools or systems are to tap into the $100 million available this year from the federal government.

Charter schools draw fire from supporters of public schools who believe these alternatives aren't necessary and might pull good students -- and money -- from existing schools.

Even some supporters of charter schools are critical of the legislation under consideration in Annapolis, saying it is too limited and gives the schools too little independence to make Maryland competitive for federal funds.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Del. John R. Leopold of Anne Arundel County, is aware of its limitations. "I know this is not the ideal bill," he said. "I favor maximum autonomy, maximum flexibility, but it's important to get the plane out of the hangar and off the runway before we soar to new heights. This represents a compromise."

The State Board of Education has taken no position on the bill, although state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick says her department will support the bill, albeit with one amendment.

The bill is a product of the statewide Task Force on Public Charter Schools, which was created after charter legislation failed in the General Assembly last year.

Thirty-four other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow charter schools, and more than 1,100 such schools are operating around the country. They receive public money based on the per pupil expenditure within the district and are accountable for student achievement. But they often function without the regulations and collective bargaining agreements that bind other schools. They are also eligible for federal funds for start-ups costs.

"I think charter schools provide choices for parents," says Joni Gardner, a Howard County parent and president of the Maryland Coalition for Educational Reform, which was organized to support charter schools. "They are not designed to destroy public schools. They are designed to enhance public schools."

Independence and autonomy are the theoretical hallmarks of charter schools, which can serve a specific group of students, such as the disabled or the gifted, or support particular academic goals.

That kind of freedom would not be granted to Maryland charter schools under the present legislation. They would be subject to county and state regulations, unless given a waiver. Teachers and staff would remain county and union employees -- points of contention in the legislation.

"I'd like a blanket waiver of rules and regulations, freedom from collective bargaining or a flexibility to be part of it or not," says Gardner, who had firsthand experience with a charter school in Arizona.

Another point of contention is who would grant the charter. The legislation says only local school boards would have that authority -- boards that, in cases such as Baltimore and Harford counties, have spoken out against the legislation.

The bill does establish an appeals process through the State Board of Education, and an advisory committee that would work with the state board.

The advisory committee is another sticking point.

Leopold sees it as a necessity, and Gardner said she would like to see that committee as an additional charter-granting authority.

But Grasmick said she will ask today that the bill be amended to eliminate the advisory committee, which she considers extraneous.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education agrees. "The state board has traditionally been the court of appeals, and they have been pretty responsive," said Carl Smith, the association's executive director.

The Maryland State Teachers' Association also supports the legislation, said its president, Karl K. Pence.

"I think it's a fairly dramatic step for the legislature to adopt even this bill," which he concedes is conservative and which he likes because it protects teachers' rights and continues to make schools accountable to state standards.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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