Ehrlich looks to boost charter schools

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the state Board of Education, holding separate and unrelated events Tuesday, discussed strikingly similar proposals aimed at encouraging the growth of charter schools in Maryland.

Ehrlich, a Republican running to take back the office he lost four years ago to Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, traveled to Montgomery County to unveil a three-point plan for charter schools.

"Charters are no longer these strange animals," he said. Making the state rules more friendly to them, he said, "should not be heavy lifting."

The former governor selected as his backdrop a county that has yet to develop any charter schools, which are funded publicly but operate independently of local school boards.

His proposal would strip local school boards of their veto power over new charter schools, ease access to funding and permit the schools to operate without union contracts.

In an apparent coincidence, the state's school board moved on Tuesday toward recommending similar changes: helping charters find money for facilities and allowing organizations other than local school boards to authorize schools.

O'Malley frequently notes that the number of charter schools in the state has more than doubled during his tenure, from 20 in 2007 to 42 now, with four more to open in September. The governor's campaign released a fact sheet Tuesday saying the state's law is "characterized as strong" because it does not cap the number of charter schools that can open.

Communities often develop charter schools as an alternative to weak public schools. Ehrlich acknowledged Tuesday that many of the state's public schools are routinely ranked at the top of national lists.

"We still have situations where kids are stuck in failing schools," he said. "I'm willing to try just about anything."

Any change would likely require revisiting Ehrlich's 2003 law that authorized charter schools. Ehrlich said Tuesday he had wanted a stronger bill.

"We had to negotiate it down," he said, describing a harried last minute back-and-forth with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller in the final moments of the legislative session that year.

Now that the schools have a "proven track record," he said, legislators would be more open to strengthening the law.

In Maryland, charter schools are bound by collective bargaining agreements in their local districts — a requirement that has proved troublesome in one of Baltimore's most successful middle schools. The KIPP Ujima Academy, a charter, threatened to leave Baltimore if it could not renegotiate a more flexible contract with the union. KIPP wanted to keep schools open more hours during the school week without paying teachers as much money as the union was demanding.

Thirty-three of Maryland's charter schools are in Baltimore, which is governed by a school board that's been eager to promote them as options. Attempts to open charters in other parts of the state have not been as successful.

Kathleen Guinan, the CEO of Crossway Community, is appealing a decision by the Montgomery County Board of Education this month to reject her application to expand an existing Montessori school and transform it into a charter school.

She said the local school board has "so many competing interests" that it is hard for them to evaluate charter applications in an "unbiased" manner.

Guinan's was one of two charter applications rejected by the Montgomery County Board of Education earlier this month. The other, for a primary school, was tossed out in part because the application stressed the idea that school should be "fun."

"Learning theorists and practitioners repeatedly discount the concept of learning as fun," county School Superintendent Jerry Weast wrote. "Learning happens when individuals are mildly frustrated by an intriguing problem."

Regardless of the outcome of the election in November, the General Assembly may face pressure to change the law. At their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, state school board members asked Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to develop recommendations that they would then vote to propose to the governor.

O'Malley appoints the state school board, but there's no guarantee he would sponsor changes in the charter legislation which have been unpopular with teachers.

"Is there any position the board might take that would be persuasive to the legislature?" board member Kate Walsh asked. Grasmick said she would like "think about it" and return with some recommendations.

The fact that Ehrlich and the board were discussing charters on the same day was a coincidence, state education spokesman William Reinhard said. The state board agenda is set far in advance.

The board voted unanimously to adopt a new charter policy on Tuesday. It does not have the strength of a law or regulation, but does encourage local school districts to make the application process for charters more transparent. Some charter school advocates say they have been blocked from opening charters by local boards that see them as competition.

Charter advocates and education reformers who wanted to strengthen the state's Race to the Top application for up to $250 million in federal funds last year considered whether to push for changes in the charter law.

They ultimately decided against it, saying the governor was already asking for a law to require student test data to be a significant factor in teacher evaluations and to lengthen the time it takes a teacher to get tenure from two to three years. That bill passed.

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