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Charter school roadblock

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan campaigned on a pledge to increase the number of charter schools in the state, which currently has one of the most restrictive charter school laws in the nation. By making charter schools easier to open and operate in Maryland, the governor hopes to give parents more choices regarding their children's education.

But the sweeping changes proposed in Mr. Hogan's reform of the charter school law have hit a roadblock in the Democratic-controlled legislature. And while we have reservations about some aspects of the governor's bill, the revisions being contemplated by the General Assembly could end up defeating the bill's purpose altogether.

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Mr. Hogan's proposal would give charter school operators greater freedom to hire and fire principals and teachers and provide relief from state teacher certification requirements. It would also clarify that charter teachers are employees of the schools they work for, not local school boards, and charters would be allowed to petition the state Board of Education for waivers from most laws governing traditional schools as well as appeal the decisions of local school boards that reject a charter's application to open. Charters would also have more authority to set admissions policies — such as targeting low-income students or English language learners — and more opportunities to receive public construction funding.

All these changes could encourage more high-quality charter school operators to open in Maryland and in turn give parents and students the choice of innovative instructional models and methods. Last week, however, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller suggested that any progress toward making it easier to start new charter schools in the state probably would be incremental at best and some of the revisions being contemplated by senators actually appear to be a step backward from the governor's larger goal.

For example, the Senate committee considering the bill, which is due to consider amendments this week, appears poised to remove a key provision from the governor's bill that would have exempted charter schools from rules governing state labor contracts. That change obviously was influenced by the opposition from the teachers unions, which stand to lose members and clout if public school teachers leave their posts for charters. But giving charters more flexibility from certain state rules also could be a good thing if it helps schools tailor their staffs to their particular missions and recruit expert teachers familiar with their instructional methods. A major reason to encourage charters is the recognition that one size does not fit all for students; thus, to be effective, some charters will need more flexibility than district-wide union contracts allow.

Moreover, the Senate's legislation wouldn't give charter schools more access to public funding for charter school capital projects, nor would it authorize the state education board to approve the opening of new schools over the objection of local school boards. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, vice chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, characterized the panel's revisions as a series of "minor" adjustments rather than the "wholesale reversal" of current law Mr. Hogan is seeking. But the overall effect appears to be that nothing much will change if the General Assembly's approach is adopted.

Mr. Hogan's charter school bill was by no means perfect, and it contained some worrisome provisions — such as dividing public funding evenly between charters and public schools on a per-pupil basis, which isn't nearly so fair in practice as it sounds in theory. But the basic intent of widening the range of educational choices available to parents and their children is a good one that the changes currently under consideration in the legislature fail to address.

Charter schools are not a panacea for underperforming or failing public schools, and they are not all necessarily better than their traditional counterparts. However, some charter operators have track records of success in dealing with students who risk falling behind in traditional schools, but the restrictions in Maryland's law have limited their willingness to start or expand operations here.

Mr. Hogan's proposals would at least bring Maryland more into line with other states that have adopted a forward-looking attitude to reforming their K-12 systems, but the foot-dragging approach to change of lawmakers in Annapolis seems more likely to leave the state mostly standing in place.

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