- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

ANNAPOLIS Maryland could be on course to open its first charter schools under legislation that goes to the Senate floor this week.

Enabling legislation, such as that going to a floor vote in the Senate, is needed to tap federal funds available for new charter schools' startup costs.

The move may mark the culmination of a five-year battle to gain support for the innovative public schools that some believe could better address student needs, particularly among 102 underachieving schools on the watch list for state takeover.

On that list are 85 schools in Baltimore and 15 in Prince George's County.

The state has already turned over the running of four Baltimore public schools to a private corporation.

Bipartisan supporters of charter schools, led by Delegate John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel County Republican, pushed bills through the House in 1999 and 2000.

The effort in the Senate had long been a Republican and lonely one, marshaled by Sen. Christopher McCabe, who represents Howard and Montgomery counties.

But this year, Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Chairman Clarence Blount, a Democrat who represents Baltimore, sponsored and shepherded a charter-school bill through that committee, adding many provisions of Mr. McCabe's proposal and improving its prospects.

"Things are different than before. This year, momentum came from the Democrats," said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network.

The Senate bill would make local school boards the primary chartering authority, but would give the state school board authority to review local decisions and overturn them on appeal.

It would also allow the state board to establish other chartering authorities.

"That's important, because 90 percent of charter schools in the country are in 10 percent of the states, and all of them have multiple chartering authorities," Mr. McCabe said.

Measures passed in the House have generally emphasized authority of the local boards, and some lawmakers said they are worried resolution of the differences could take time and endanger the bill in a conference committee, where members of both houses hammer out a version of the bill acceptable to both chambers.

But the state education board supports the legislation which could make Maryland eligible for part of $190 million in federal funds available to help start charter schools.

And state education department spokesman Ronald A. Peiffer said he has heard "it's very likely there will be a charter school law" in Maryland this year.

Although they are publicly funded, charter schools have freedom to operate outside much of the traditional public school framework to meet particular needs of their students.

While no law prevents charter schools from opening in Maryland, opponents have argued that they would undermine and drain resources from the public school system.

Montgomery and Frederick counties' public schools have policies for reviewing charter school applications, but no applicant has won approval.

Maryland has no law authorizing charter schools, but it has one experimental school in Baltimore.

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