Gov. Robert Ehrlich is wasting no time in forging ahead with his plans to bring real educational choice to Maryland in the form of charter schools. Some 39 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws, which permit parents, teachers, colleges and other entities to open schools for students who are being poorly served by the public-school establishment. The public charter schools proposed by Mr. Ehrlich would be non-sectarian and have increased freedom to hire teachers and devise their own curriculum and policies.
Students in Maryland (one of just 11 states without any charter-school law) could greatly benefit from the competition that such schools would bring. Currently, Maryland spends more than $7,800 per student per year on education, putting it in the top third of spending among the states.
Even though Annapolis has followed the policy prescriptions of teachers unions like the Maryland State Teachers Association (MSTA) and poured millions into reducing class sizes, school construction and new technologies, the results have been poor. On recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, for example, nearly 75 percent of Maryland fourth-graders fell short of the proficient level in math, science or reading, and most low-income children couldn’t read or perform math at even the most basic level.
Despite the abysmal record of the public-education establishment, charter-school bills have repeatedly died in the General Assembly since 1999. And, if last week’s events are any indication, Mr. Ehrlich will have his work cut out for him as he tries to shepherd this reform through the legislature.
On Thursday, for example, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele testified on behalf of the governor’s charter-schools bill before the Senate Education Committee, where he told lawmakers that “without this bill, the choices of students, particularly the children of poor parents, will be limited.”
A key provision of the Ehrlich bill would authorize the state school board, local boards of education, institutions of higher education and other groups authorized by the state board to grant school charters. This greatly threatens the effective monopoly control currently enjoyed by local school boards, who have used this control to block charter schools from operating.
Indeed, John Woolums of the Maryland Association of School Boards of Education called the Ehrlich proposal “an extremely disruptive intrusion into the local board’s authority and responsibility to operate public schools in its jurisdiction.”
At one point, the chairman of the education committee, Sen. Paula Hollinger, Baltimore County Democrat, upbraided Mr. Steele for failing to take sufficient account of all the work her panel had done in working on charter-schools legislation, which failed to pass over the past four years. She vowed to go through the Ehrlich bill and a competing proposal “line by line,” adding that “what we don’t accept, we’ll take out.”
For its part, the MSTA says it’s supporting the Ehrlich bill with amendments. Don’t be surprised if those amendments effectively neuter any real reform. Messrs. Ehrlich and Steele have only just begun what will be a bruising campaign to bring badly needed change to the education system in Maryland.