- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has presented a bill to the General Assembly to increase the number of charter schools in Maryland by allowing public universities and other government agencies to submit applications.
Supporters of the Ehrlich bill say it is stronger than those in the House and Senate, which allow only county school boards to open the schools. They also say Maryland is overdue because it is one of 13 states without a law on charter schools.
In his State of the State address last week, Mr. Ehrlich urged Annapolis lawmakers to pass a bill that had "teeth."
Mr. Ehrlich filed the bill last week and tomorrow is expected to announce more details, which will include allowing the state board of education to open charter schools.
A hearing for the bill has been scheduled for Thursday before the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
"Most local school boards won't do anything for charters," said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, an advocacy group of parents and educators.
Charter schools have become a popular alternative for parents dissatisfied with the education their children receive in public schools. They often are run by private groups using tax money, and they attract many students failing in public school systems. More than 2,400 charter schools have opened in the United States since 1992.
Advocates say school boards are responsible for improving public education and as a result are reluctant to give money to charter schools.
"School boards obviously think they're doing a really good job and do not want to try and change themselves," said Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican who helped write Mr. Ehrlich's bill.
The District has one the country's best charter laws because two education boards have the authority to approve charter schools. Virginia gives only local school boards the authority.
Maryland has one charter school in Frederick County and three experimental schools in Baltimore.
A group has failed for three years to open the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School in Montgomery County. Plans to open a school in Havre de Grace, north of Baltimore, have been met with resistance from the Harford County school board, Mrs. Gardner said.
Though the school boards in Montgomery and Frederick counties have considered such applications, lawmakers say they need a state law to get nearly $200 million in federal money.
Mr. Ehrlich has clearly said the money would help reduce the state's $1.8 billion budget deficit.
The General Assembly generally has supported charter schools. In fact, lawmakers in the House and Senate have passed such legislation for the past three years but failed to reach an agreement in conference committees.
Democrats and Republicans alike support the idea.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Calvert County Democrat, has submitted a bill this year, and Delegate John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel County Republican, has filed a House bill that would give authority to county school boards.
Mrs. Greenip, a longtime supporter of charter schools, withdrew a bill similar to Mr. Leopold's that she filed early in the General Assembly session.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, Prince George's County Democrat and a member of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said he is waiting to see how this year's bills take shape.
He is concerned about the success of the schools.
"Arizona has had hundreds of charter schools that have failed," he said.
Mr. Pinsky also suggested adding some of the proven charter programs to public school curriculums.
Mr. Leopold, who has introduced a charter bill for five years, said he wants multiple school boards to have the authority to grant charters but needed a simpler bill that would gain bipartisan support and pass in the House Ways and Means Committee.
Supporter of charter schools say they have an alternative strategy: appealing the county school board decisions to the state board of education.
Mr. Leopold said within two years the board will have pro-charter members appointed by Mr. Ehrlich.
Said Mrs. Gardner: "There is a lot more pressure on the legislature this year and I think they will pass the bill."

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