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Maryland Students Deserve a Break

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by Jeanne Allen

When governors win historic elections, one expects legislators to not only respect such a mandate but to try to work collaborate on changes that help those for whom adults should work the hardest, and that’s our kids. Such expectations for Maryland, however, seem sadly out of reach right now. This week, the Maryland Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee took up Governor Larry Hogan’s very modest proposal to amend the state’s charter school law, in order to increase quality educational opportunities for students who currently have no options other than their assigned school, which may not fit their needs. Yet rather than even debate the need for more and better choices, this allegedly thoughtful body ignored his proposals altogether and actually took action to make Maryland’s education law less accountable to parents and taxpayers! They did so by removing the advisory role of the State Board of Education and by taking any authority away from charter school principals to choose their own staff!

This was news to many legislators with whom advocates spoke this week. Indeed even the Governor’s own staff seems to believe that they have made progress. That’s because there has been little time given to actually understanding how charter school laws are supposed to work and a lot of time given to listening to mythology and misinformation about this very successful education reform that has helped 42 other states and The District of Columbia transform schooling for all types of children, particularly the poor and disadvantaged among us.

The reality is that a charter school law that permits school districts to dictate the terms under when and how a new public school is formed and control all of its hiring, curriculum decisions and funding is not a charter school law at all. It’s simply a suggestion that school boards consider doing things a little differently, if they want. The problem is that while well meaning individuals run and win school board elections all the time, just being a board member, or hiring smart people to run a district, doesn’t make them education experts. Experts are the teachers who have trained and studied what works for children, the principals who can show accomplishment with the least well-off students and those with the most complications, and the parents closest to the kids who may not know about teaching school stuff but certainly know what works best for their kids.

This is the genesis of charter schooling, and it is the reason thousands of ordinary people across the state were buoyed by Larry Hogan’s promise when he ran for office to improve the state’s education system so that all children, not just those fortunate to live in good school communities, can have access to better education. In fact, Governor Hogan has affirmed time and time again that he won’t accept a bill that rolls back the clock, and that provides no additional support for families who struggle to do the right thing for their kids. That’s why many are mystified that many alleged charter supporters claim that recent action is a step forward, when it is definitely many steps back.

They may not understand that there is data to support the development of strong laws; data that shows student achievement is strong in strong law states. Strong charter school laws give teachers the freedom to negotiate their own contracts with the charter school governing board, and they establish fair and equitable funding. Equally important is the need to alleviate the potential for arbitrary and capricious decisions by some school districts that don’t understand or are afraid of change by allowing charter applications to be reviewed by the State Board of Education on appeal.

Either Maryland has to go forward or stop and engage in a factual discussion about how various provisions in law result in various practices. Doing nothing is better than doing something bad, particularly when the record is clear that this Legislature will never permit this issue to be brought up again once it has had its day in the state house. Maryland may be unique, but lessons learned from other states and communities are powerful guides for the future. Staying the course is not acceptable. Moving backwards is insane. Citizens must hold their government to account for its legislative and spending decisions and give Maryland students a break. The best and most immediate way to do that is to enact a new charter law, now.

Jeanne Allen is Senior Fellow and president emeritus of The Center for Education Reform.