- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2003

SEVERN Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that Maryland was losing millions of dollars in federal aid by failing to enact a charter school law and urged state lawmakers to pass his version of the bill.
"There has been a collective lack of will to get this done," said Mr. Ehrlich, who introduced his bill to the General Assembly earlier this week.
Charter school advocates have said that Mr. Ehrlich's proposal is better than those in the General Assembly, which give only local school boards the authority to open charter schools.
Mr. Ehrlich's bill also grants the authority to state and local school boards, and colleges and universities.
Existing public schools can apply for become charter schools, under the Ehrlich bill.
If enacted, the bill would make Maryland eligible for a share of the $225 million earmarked for charter schools in President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
Mr. Ehrlich made his plea yesterday at the Van Bokkelen Elementary School where he was joined by state education Superintendent Nancy E. Grasmick and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.
"This bill and our charter school effort do not supplant or set aside the public education system and public schools in Maryland," Mr. Steele said. "It is designed to augment and supplement the education system."
He also said charter schools have raised test scores in math and reading, improved parent involvement and lowered per pupil costs in some cases.
Maryland is one of 11 states in the country without a charter school law.
The first charter school in the country opened in 1992 and there are now 2,700 with 36 in the District and eight in Virginia.
Maryland has one charter school, which opened in Frederick last year, Monocacy Valley Montessori Charter School, created after the local school board agreed to review applications.
Mrs. Grasmick, a Democrat, said she has not examined Mr. Ehrlich's bill but supports charter schools.
"We are looking at different models for accelerated student performance," she said. "I suggest that we embrace the possibility of another tool in our toolbox."
Mrs Grasmick, however, also said the schools must meet state standards.
State lawmakers passed versions of a charter school bill in the House and Senate last year but failed to draft compromise legislation in conference committee.
The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee will hear Mr. Ehrlich's bill today.
Charter advocates support Mr. Ehrlich's bill because local school boards have repeatedly not allowed such schools to open.
Frederick and Montgomery county school boards now accept applications, but Montgomery County has for the past two years rejected an application from the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School.
Maryland Charter School Network President Joni Gardner said one school that wanted to open in Havre de Grace, north of Baltimore, had faced some hurdles from the Harford County school board.
"The governor's bill is a very strong one and we would like to see it passed as written," she said.
Miss Gardner, however, said the bill did not address the problem of charter schools finding classroom space. Administrators with the Jaime Escalante Public Charter and Monocacy Valley Montessori Charter schools have had similar problems finding facilities. And charter schools in the District have had to reduce admissions because of inadequate space.
Mr. Ehrlich said that federal funds available to new schools would help address that issue.
However, the Maryland State Teachers' Association and others have complained that Mr. Ehrlich's bill does not put charter school employees under the union umbrella.
"When you take a group of folks out of the collective bargaining unit and separate them out, they are not being provided with a fair and level playing ground as their colleagues in other schools," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the teachers' union.
She also said the union supports charters and that Mr. Ehrlich's bill was "very comprehensive."
Mr. Steele, who will lead a new education commission that will oversee new testing requirements and charter schools, said yesterday that the Ehrlich administration bill would offer the same benefits to charter school employees as those offered to their public school counterparts.
"They also have to meet certification standards," he said. "There will be no dilution of education standards for teachers."
Mr. Steele also said the bill would "stimulate competition among public schools while providing parents and students with choices."

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