The scene in the colorful kindergarten room at City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore seems straight out of the 1990s, when children didn't learn to read until first grade. The kids play make-believe and draw pictures on erasable boards, while a teacher stacks mats for napping.
The organizers of City Neighbors made the choice to be different from the nearby public school because they wanted to give children more time to grow. But that autonomy came after a lot of work.
If Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wins his old job back, he says, he would try to loosen some of the constraints on schools like City Neighbors. He believes charter schools should be freed from the city teachers union contract and should be able to choose their own principals.
Ehrlich identifies his ardent support for charter schools as the sharpest difference on education between him and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. But it's hardly the only education issue over which the two have differed. They have disagreed over who did a better job controlling the costs of attending state universities and who did the most to protect public schools from cuts. Each has reams of statistics aimed at undermining the other's claims of success on education.
When it comes to future plans, however, their rhetoric sounds more similar. O'Malley has maintained education funding during a period when many states have made significant cuts, and Ehrlich says he would try to do the same — although he acknowledges he would begin to reduce state aid to schools some.
Bobbi McDonald, the founder of City Neighbors, said her school and other charters are fortunate that Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso has welcomed charters.
"He is proud of all the work we are doing," she said. "He wants us in his portfolio, and we want to be there, but why does it have to be so painful?"
Ehrlich says he wants to give bodies other than school boards the authority to hand out charters to new schools. He says he would work toward providing more funding for facilities for charter schools, and make them independent of the collective bargaining process.
While O'Malley is not as vocal on charter schools, he says he would be open to any changes the state school board might propose for the charter law.
Four years ago, when O'Malley was challenging then-incumbent Ehrlich, education was not a major campaign issue. But since becoming governor, O'Malley has embraced education policy in a way he never did as mayor of Baltimore.
His growing interest appears to have been helped along by Maryland's schools being named the best in the nation by Education Week's annual Quality Counts study two years in a row. The College Board, meanwhile, ranked the state first in the percentage of students who take Advanced Placement examinations and earn scores showing a college-level mastery of the subject.
O'Malley's tenure has also been marked by wrangling with state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, a veteran who also served under Ehrlich. After failing in a public attempt to oust Grasmick, O'Malley appointed state school board members who have been more outspoken and involved in policy than previous members. Some of the new appointees have questioned Grasmick's approach during public sessions.
The relationship between O'Malley and Grasmick is still strained. When asked about it in a recent interview, O'Malley paused. He then said he thought they had worked well together as the state applied for Race to the Top, the federal competition backed by President Barack Obama in which states win education dollars in exchange for agreeing to changes in policy.
The state secured $250 million in the second round of the competition, in part because of O'Malley's agreement to support legislation extending the time it takes a teacher to get tenure, and requiring that student test data to be used in teacher evaluations.
The proposals put the governor in the difficult position of backing legislation that was unpopular with some of his most trusted supporters: teachers.
Ehrlich also said he would support the reform agenda in general.
"I think [education reform] has generally gone in the right direction. I think President Obama has done some good things in education," he said.
Will education funds face cuts?
What concerns many education advocates is whether the winner of the November election will begin cutting education funding to meet budget constraints.
Maryland's Thornton funding law, which was passed in 2002 to increase aid to school systems and provide more equity across the state, was intended to ensure that children born in poor jurisdictions receive an education equal to that of children born in wealthier areas. To reduce funding, the governor would have to ask the legislature to change the law.
Ehrlich has said he will not fund the Geographic Cost of Education Index, a formula that gives additional dollars to Montgomery, Prince George's and other counties where the cost of providing an education is higher.
During his tenure as governor, Ehrlich received a legal opinion saying that state law does not require the governor to fund it. Ehrlich said the index was "bells and whistles" rather than the guts of the Thornton formula.
Still, he says, education funding would be a high priority of his administration.
"Obviously K through 12 was a priority before," he said. "We funded it during a pretty difficult time. ... The fact that you are born a poor kid should never be a predictor of the quality of public education you receive."
But he would not commit to maintaining the current level of spending in Thornton.
O'Malley has said he will maintain Thornton spending for the next four years.
"I am preparing a budget for next year that has no cuts to education and no new taxes," he said. "I think I have demonstrated for the last four years what the priorities of this administration are, and they are the assets that allow us to make this transition to a new economy, the education of our children, affordable college, all of the things that fuel the skills of our work force."
How to help failing schools
Ehrlich argues that he cares more than O'Malley about improving the worst schools in the state, and that he would make the state friendlier to charter schools. In their first debate, he attacked O'Malley for helping to block attempts by Grasmick to take over 11 failing schools in the city.
Ehrlich hasn't proposed specific ways to improve failing schools, but he said he wanted to get more older residents to volunteer in schools through a program that has already been implemented in some Baltimore schools.
In addition, he said he "loves the model" of the SEED school, a public boarding school for middle and high school students that is now in its second year in Southwest Baltimore. The school takes students from around the state who stay there five days a week.
Ehrlich suggests that the University of Maryland system and local chambers of commerce might become chartering authorities. He says Prince George's County is particularly fertile ground for creating more charter schools.
O'Malley is not pushing those ideas, although he said he has tried to work out some issues that have prevented charter supporters from increasing the number of such schools in Maryland.
O'Malley and Ehrlich also have sparred over higher education, with the governor pointing to three years of tuition freezes for in-state students and Ehrlich pointing out that the cost of attending a state university went up anyway.
Ehrlich is correct in saying that costs have risen over O'Malley's four years as governor. The combined cost of in-state tuition, fees, room and board at the University of Maryland, College Park is about $18,000, up 10 percent from when O'Malley took office.
Under Ehrlich, the cost of attending College Park went up about 26 percent for in-state students.
Ehrlich has attempted to poke other holes in O'Malley's record of spending on higher education. He has noted that during the recession, O'Malley made up for state budget shortfalls by cutting $133 million from the university system's reserve fund.
In campaign literature, the Ehrlich camp has said "the purpose of this emergency fund is to help raise money for student financial aid" and has portrayed the cuts as a blow to financial aid.
While it's true that the demand for financial aid has outpaced federal, state and university funding for scholarships, it's not accurate to say that the reserve fund is used to supplement such assistance to students. Instead, the university system uses the reserve fund to maintain the strength of its bond rating. The cuts were a threat to the system's borrowing power, not to financial aid.