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Senate panel rewrites Hogan’s charter school law

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By Erin Cox
The Baltimore Sun
March 25, 2015

A key state Senate panel spent Wednesday dismantling Gov. Larry Hogan’s bill to expand charter schools, redrafting it to allow for only small changes to Maryland’s program for alternative schools.

Democratic senators on the Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee stripped out the Republican governor’s proposals to exempt charters from the teachers’ union, to require local school systems to send more cash to charters, and to give their operators more leeway in hiring teachers and principals.

Hogan had said those provisions were necessary to encourage more charter schools to open in the state.

Lawmakers even retitled Hogan’s “Public Charter School Expansion and Improvement Act of 2015,” deleting “expansion” as they tore apart one of the signature initiatives of the governor’s inaugural year.

“We’re giving the modest stuff,” said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee.

She said lawmakers do not want to create a “dual” education system in which charters compete against traditional schools for students, teachers and resources.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to do away with since 1954,” she said — a reference to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.

Keiffer Mitchell, Hogan’s special assistant for education, thanked the committee for its work.

“That is not say that we are happy,” he added.

“For charters to be successful, they need to have flexibility,” Mitchell, a Democrat who served in the House until January, said in an interview. “The governor wants to see a stronger law. He does not want to go backwards.”

The committee is expected to vote Friday on the charter school bill, sending it to the Senate floor for debate next week.

The House of Delegates has been mulling its own set of changes to Hogan’s bill, but education subcommittee Chairwoman Anne R. Kaiser this week declined to discuss details.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller last week urged senators to pass some version of Hogan’s charter school bill, saying there was a “tacit agreement” that passing it would prompt the governor to send more money to public schools.

Hogan’s administration has declined to discuss whether such an agreement exists.

Mitchell said that if the Senate passes its version of the bill, he’ll go to work trying to get more of the governor’s proposal approved in the House.

Since Maryland approved charters in 2003, 47 of the publicly funded, privately operated schools have opened across the state. Baltimore City has 32 of the schools. Many jurisdictions have none.

National advocacy groups for charter schools, hailed for their ability to experiment in teaching, rank Maryland among the worst states in the country to launch one.

But state education officials say the state’s strict rules about operating charters have ensured that those that do open here will thrive.

The rewritten bill would allow for a pilot program that would grant more flexibility in hiring, cirriculum, scheduling to successful existing charters that qualify.

The program would also make clear that charter operators would not have to accept principals they dislike and would have authority over day-to-day administration.

“It solves some of the challenges,” said Jason Botel, executive director of Maryland CAN, an organization that supports charter schools.

Botel said that there is “a lot of confusion” among charter schools about whether their principals and employees answer to the boards that govern the school or the local school districts that employ them.

Clarifying that for schools in the pilot program, he said, “is a significant step forward.”

“If this bill is the best we can get out of the legislature this year, we’ll be happy,” Botel said.

Representatives for the teachers’ union told lawmakers they much preferred the version drafted by the committee to Hogan’s original bill.

Sean Johnson, a lobbyist with the Maryland State Education Association, said the new version manages to “strategically thread a needle.”

The draft calls for a study of how much each school district spends per pupil on education, a figure that would eventually be used to determine how much money charter schools would get from local school boards.

Hogan’s originally called for giving charters 98 percent of what their local districts spend per pupil. Critics said that number was too high because per pupil spending includes large centralized expenses such as school buses and administration.

The governor proposed letting charters give preference to students from low-income neighborhoods and allowing siblings of students who are already attending the charter enroll.

The committee left those provisions in the bill, but added restrictions.

In Baltimore, the legislation found opposition from a surprising corner. Charter school teachers circulated a petition opposing the bill, and sent it to legislators outlining how they feared the unintended consequences of the law.

Of most concern, they said, was that it would create inequities in funding.

“I do not want our success to come on the backs of just as needy students in non-charter schools,” said Corey Gaber, a teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School.

The charter school-promoting Center for Education Reform in Washington sent material to the teachers arguing the law, particularly the provision that would allow a break from the union, would improve their working conditions.

In response, the Baltimore Teachers Union released literature to counter the claims.

Kris Sieloff, a teacher at City Neighbors High School, called the idea of leaving a union “disturbing.”

“We like the protections, and I like feeling part of a larger system,” she said.

Exempting teachers from the union was one of the measures that lawmakers refused to grant, Conway said.

“What they really want is the ability to hire and fire their own staff,” she said. “That’s what this is really about.”