Steele defends Ehrlich's charter school proposal at a Senate panel hearing


In his debut committee performance testifying on behalf of the administration, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele defended the governor's charter school plan yesterday, arguing that it would rescue low-income students mired in substandard schools.

"Without this bill, the choices of students, particularly the children of poor parents, will be limited," Steele told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Charter schools are nonsectarian, tuition-free schools that operate within the public school system but are organized by private groups and generally allowed more freedom to choose curriculum and policies.

Senators grilled Steele on various points of the bill dealing with accountability, who would be able to authorize charter schools, the union rights of teachers, and how students would be selected.

To several of the questions, he replied: "We can work on the language," indicating that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is not wedded to the exact structure of some of the more controversial parts of the bill.

On the point of what Steele termed "flexibility," however, the lieutenant governor said the administration was inclined to remain firm. The legislation would authorize the state school board, local boards, higher education institutions and any other entities approved by the state board to issue school charters.

But groups such as the Maryland Association of School Boards of Education say that is unacceptable. The bill, said John R. Woolums of the association, "represents an extremely disruptive intrusion into the local board's authority and responsibility to operate public schools in its jurisdiction."

Steele and others -- including teachers and charter school advocates from national organizations -- said a range of chartering authority is necessary in case local boards are prejudiced against public school competition.

The House of Delegates and Senate have each passed separate charter school bills in recent years -- and are likely to do so again this year -- but have never agreed on a final version.

One significant sticking point has been whether teachers would be allowed to organize, and under what conditions. Ehrlich's bill would allow charter school teachers to join a union, but would prohibit them from being part of any other bargaining unit.

"The rationale behind this is unclear," a representative from the Maryland State Teachers Association told committee members, adding that charter school teachers should not be treated differently than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

The committee also heard testimony on a charter school bill sponsored by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a St. Mary's County Democrat. His bill, which is somewhat more restrictive than Ehrlich's, is the result of at least four years of committee work.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, committee chairwoman and a Baltimore County Democrat, said both bills would go to a subcommittee. "We'll compare them line by line, and what we don't accept, we'll take out," she said.

Hollinger also chastised Steele for failing to brief her on Ehrlich's bill. Steele apologized for the "oversight."

"It would be one thing if we had never worked on this issue," Hollinger said afterward. "I'm glad that the governor is committed to the issue. But the reality is that this committee has spent four years on this issue, including a summer study, and we feel some ownership. ... They should have at least checked to see what's been done."

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