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Hogan's school reform has potential — and pitfalls

There's a lot of good in Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to reform Maryland's charter school law. It provides additional flexibility for charters to pursue innovative academic models, allows the possibility that the schools could be established in districts that have not welcomed them and contains mechanisms to better target charters toward disadvantaged students. But it could also bleed funding from traditional schools, and some of its provisions could play out unfairly for current charter teachers.

One of the best elements of the legislation is a change in the way charters select students. Presently, they must hold lotteries to determine admission randomly among all applicants districtwide. Mr. Hogan's bill would allow charters to give some preference to low-income students, those with disabilities and English language learners, or those who live within a targeted area. Like most everything in the bill, it needs tweaking, but it's a good idea that will help charters live up to the promise of improving opportunities for those who need them most.

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The bill's provisions related to operating funding are the most worrisome. They call for money to be divided evenly on a per-pupil basis among charters and traditional schools, after accounting for administrative expenses. That sounds fair, but it's not. Some students are substantially more expensive to educate than others — for example, those with severe disabilities — and failing to account for that would likely create serious and probably unconstitutional disparities. Robbing support from students in traditional public schools was surely not Mr. Hogan's intent, but that's the potential effect of the bill.

Other elements of the legislation are mixed. Affording charters more flexibility from certain state rules, including teacher certification requirements, could be highly beneficial if it attracts more high-quality charter operators to the state — and if school boards maintain sufficient oversight. Allowing charters the option of directly employing their principals and teachers — right now, they are employees of the school system — is a positive step insofar as it helps the schools' tailor their staffs to their particular educational models. But the law needs to adequately protect teachers in existing charters who signed on under the old system, and provisions related to teachers' union membership need to be carefully considered. Allowing the state school board the option of granting a charter in cases where a local district has rejected it is important in areas that have been resistant to charters — basically everywhere but Baltimore City. But local boards must retain a key role in the process, particularly as it regards the conversion of existing public schools to charters.

Data from Maryland and elsewhere shows that charters aren't inherently better than public schools. Some are, some aren't. The underlying goal of this effort shouldn't simply be to increase the number of charter schools in the state but to make sure Maryland is welcoming to the best, most rigorous operators of these schools, and that the opportunity to attend them goes to those who need it most.

Mr. Hogan's legislation had its first hearing on Thursday, and it's clear that a lot remains to be worked out. The bill has sparked understandable concern among education advocates and teachers — not to mention their unions. But there is potential here for legislation that includes sufficient flexibility and accountability. It's a tall order for the remaining six weeks of this General Assembly session, but it's doable, provided all sides keep in mind who the most important players in this process are: the students.

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