- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

ANNAPOLIS House lawmakers passed an amended version yesterday of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan for charter schools in Maryland, which is likely to prompt him to veto the legislation.
Bringing more charter schools to Maryland is a top legislative priority for Mr. Ehrlich who wanted to pass a law that would grant local and state education boards, and public universities the authority to open such schools.
But he recently told The Washington Times that he would veto a version that eliminated too many of his crucial points.
"I would rather start over," Mr. Ehrlich said. "This is important to us."
The version of Mr. Ehrlich's bill that House lawmakers passed allows only local school boards to grant charters, which is the situation in Maryland without a law. The bill provides for an appeal process if a local board turns down the request for a charter.
The bill was approved by a margin of more than 3 to 1 after limited debate.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the control of county school boards and have more freedom to develop policies and curriculum. Supporters, including Mr. Ehrlich, say they can offer a better education for public school students, especially in schools with discipline problems and poor test scores.
The Senate killed Mr. Ehrlich's bill but passed one by Calvert County Democrat Roy P. Dyson that also grants authority only to local school boards.
Maryland has one charter school in Frederick and three experimental schools in Baltimore, but charter advocates say school board members are protecting their own interests by not opening more.
Mr. Ehrlich's vow to veto an ineffective bill has won support among charter school advocates, who agree that the authority to grant charters should go beyond local school boards.
Still, Mr. Ehrlich said he would consider the bills with only local school boards if they include his proposal that gives charter school teachers the option not to participate in collective-bargaining agreements.
"I hope they don't pass unless they are strengthened" when state delegates and senators meet in conference committee, said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, which has lobbied for several years on the issue.
In Montgomery County, the founders of the Jaime Escalante Public Charter school have been rejected twice in three years by the local school board. Co-founder Joseph Hawkins said he would be disappointed if Maryland passes a "weak" law.
"It would be starting all over with same school board," he said. "I would have preferred that they have a bill with multiple chartering authorities."
Some lawmakers agreed.
"It is very upsetting," said Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican and key sponsor of the Ehrlich bill. "Getting a second chartering authority is very, very important,".
Others lawmakers said they could work with a weak law and later try to strengthen it.
"This is a weak bill, but it is a step in the right direction," said Delegate David G. Boschert, an Anne Arundel Republican and another sponsor of the Ehrlich bill. "We can work to make it better next year so that it is more advantageous to students. … As they say, half a loaf is better than no loaf."
Maryland is one of 11 states without a charter school law, which Mr. Ehrlich often points out has made the state ineligible for a part of $225 million in federal aid.
"The governor's bill was overly ambitious," said Delegate Jean B. Cryor, Montgomery County Republican. "It was more than the General Assembly could handle."
The amendments to Mr. Ehrlich's bill in the House were taken from a bill sponsored by Delegate John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel Republican, said his plan and the bill passed by the Senate give groups seeking to establish a charter school the right to appeal to the state school board if their request is denied by county boards.
Within two years, a majority of the state school board members will be Ehrlich appointees, who will have the power to override decisions by county boards that reject charter requests, Mr. Leopold said.

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