Lukewarm legislation; Politics: The bill that sets forth the rules on Maryland charter schools is so filled with compromise that few are enthusiastic about it.


COMPROMISE IS THE name of the political game, and legislation giving the state's blessing to "charter schools" has been so compromised that no one -- neither friend nor foe -- has much enthusiasm for it.

The bill sets forth the rules governing schools that are financed publicly but operated independently by groups of like-minded citizens. Charter schools are popular in states such as Arizona, California and Michigan, but Maryland is late joining the charter school parade.

Independence and autonomy are the two words most often heard from charter proponents. The bill in Annapolis doesn't grant enough of either, according to the proponents.

Furthermore, it's supported by the Maryland State Teachers Association, longtime punching bag of the conservative interests who see charters as a first step toward the goal of unfettered school choice and freedom from the public school quasi-monopoly.

Statewide charter school legislation is a must if Maryland is to partake of a $100 million kitty established by the federal government for charter start-ups. But a 12-member task force charged with fashioning the Maryland legislation during the summer and fall came up with provisions that one side dislikes and the other endorses without much enthusiasm.

Even the bill's sponsor, Republican Del. John R. Leopold of Anne Arundel County, says it's far from ideal. "It's important to get the plane out of the hangar and off the runway before we soar to new heights," he told The Sun's Mary Maushard.

Douglas P. Munro of the conservative Calvert Institute for Policy Research noted that six of the 12 members of the task force "were in one way or the other associated with the public education establishment -- and the results showed." If the establishment is well-pleased, Munro said, "it probably is not a very good bill."

What the writers of the legislation have done is insist that the public systems maintain regulatory authority over the charter schools -- much in the way, some years ago, public school interests regulated home schools. (Those regulations have been loosened in recent years as the home schools have been seen as less threatening to the establishment.)

"It's a conservative bill in that it doesn't establish a radical departure," said Karl K. Pence, MSTA president, "These schools aren't out to where they're unsupervised and unresponsive to public school standards."

Maryland, the Free State, has always been inhospitable to those who would challenge the public school hegemony.

Twice, voters have turned down parochial school aid schemes by wide margins, and Maryland provides little public aid to nonpublic schools. Voucher bills have gone nowhere. Even discussion of charter schools has been sotto voce, this while the movement has swept the country.

About 1,100 charters are in operation, and President Clinton, another liberal proponent with Pence, is calling for 3,000 by next year.

Being near the end of the line has an advantage: You can learn from the mistakes of those who went before you.

A 2 1/2-year study concluded recently by University of California-Los Angeles researchers found that the claims of charter school advocates are not accurate when measured against day-to-day experiences of people in charters and nearby public schools.

The study of 17 California charters and their neighboring public schools found the charters, in most instances, are not held accountable for enhanced student achievement. Many are poor, lacking the capital resources of public schools. And they have not caused public schools to pull up their socks to meet the competition.

"Many charter schools have accomplished a great deal in the face of limited public funding," said UCLA Professor Amy Stuart Wells.

She added, "However, our research raised serious questions about the claims made by charter school advocates as to the power of accountability, autonomy, choice and competition to improve the efficiency and quality of charter schools over other public schools."

Prepaid College Trust opens second enrollment period

The Maryland Prepaid College Trust has begun its second yearly enrollment period, inviting Maryland parents to pay in advance -- basically at today's levels -- for their children's tuition and fees at tomorrow's colleges and universities. The trust blamed a late start and a confusing message for last year's poor start,

The Maryland plan has received a good review from a new survey of state-sponsored college savings plans by Joseph F. Hurley, a Rochester, N.Y., accountant and financial planner.

In a book, "The Best Way to Save for College" (BonaCom Publications, Rochester, $22.95 paperback), Hurley gives the Maryland plan three "caps" -- commencement mortarboards -- of a possible five.

The best features, according to Hurley: Parents may claim a deduction on their Maryland income tax return for their contributions up to $2,500 per tax return per year. Withdrawals for higher education expenses are exempt from Maryland taxes.

The worst: As a new program, little reserve is in the trust fund to protect against future investment losses. The program will not cover the cost of books, equipment, room and board.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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