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Charter reform: Better than nothing

Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to increase the number of charter schools in Maryland to give parents more choices about the education of their children suffered a major blow in the General Assembly session just ended. His proposal wasn't perfect, but it represented a much larger step forward than the bill that the legislature approved. Nonetheless, he should sign the bill.

Charter schools aren't a panacea, and they aren't inherently better than traditional schools. But the best of them have shown real success in educating students who might otherwise have fallen behind, and in general they provide parents and students with the ability to choose a school whose philosophy meets their needs. But with a few exceptions, Maryland's strict charter has prevented the best national charter organizations from setting up schools here, and it has nearly stymied the development of charters altogether outside of Baltimore City.

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The governor's bill would have given charter schools power to hire and fire staff, to petition the state Board of Education for waivers from many laws governing traditional schools and to appeal the decisions of local school boards that rejected a charter's application to open. It also would have given charters more say in setting admissions policies, such as targeting low-income students or English language learners, and guaranteed them a higher percentage of state per-pupil funding and access to school construction funds.

Yet the legislation that emerged at best waters down and at worst omits reforms in those areas. Some advocates think it may even make it marginally more difficult for charters to open, though in practice we think that's not the case. The bill imposes onerous new regulations requiring charters to get approval from local school boards every time they want to make a change that differs from how their local district operates. In effect, they now will have to negotiate virtually everything they do. And charter schools still won't have to power to hire and fire principals and teachers, who remain employees of the local school board, not the charter operator. The bill approved by lawmakers exempts charter school teachers from state certification requirements, but that doesn't mean much since teachers assigned to charters by local school boards already hold those credentials anyway. And it won't do anything to solve the problem of teachers and principals sent to charter schools who aren't committed to the operator's instructional model and teaching strategies.

The funding provisions of Mr. Hogan's bill were probably the most contentious, and indeed they needed amendment. But the final legislation includes no reform at all in that regard and leaves charters out of the competition for state capital funds.

There are an estimated 12,000 students across the state who would like to attend a charter school but can't unless more schools are allowed to open. The bill on the governor's desk does little to change that.

Nonetheless, we disagree with those charter advocates calling on the governor to veto this bill. Doing so would not make it more likely that the legislature will approve more substantive reforms later in his term; quite the contrary, it would diminish the chances for any future cooperation on the issue by the legislature. And the law does at least include advances on charter funding transparency, prioritized enrollment for disadvantaged students and some added flexibility on staffing and policy for high-performing charters.

Mr. Hogan managed single handedly to put charter schools onto the General Assembly's agenda, and it should not come as a surprise that it would take him more time to build public and political support for his proposals. We hope he will use this year's legislation as a building block for more reform in the years ahead.

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