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Hogan Charter Bill Faces Icy Reception In Legislature

Christopher Connelly/WYPR


Gov. Larry Hogan’s education platform will face its first big test today when a House of Delegates committee will take up his plan to reform Maryland’s strict charter school law.  Although some Democratic lawmakers have signaled interest in seeing a reform to Maryland’s strict charter law, many say the bill goes too far. Public schools advocates say the bill is a giveaway to national charter operators.

“I’m really alarmed by this bill,” says Charly Carter, who runs Maryland Working Families. “It undercuts the authority of local school boards and local taxpayers. It really raises questions about accountability because it exempts charter schools from a wide swath of regulations,”

Carter says language in the bill broadens charter schools’ ability to apply for exemptions from state standards, and she worries Hogan’s bill would make it easier for a would-be charter to appeal a local school board’s rejection to the state board, which is appointed by the governor.

“It turns our public education system into a free-market resource where speculators can come in, and they can take chances and they can spend money and the only people who are going to be hurt by it are children,” she says.

The state’s teachers’ union is also taking aim at Hogan’s bill, which would allow charters to keep their teachers out of the local bargaining unit. That looks a lot like union-busting to Sean Johnson from the Maryland State Education Association.

“The value of collective bargaining is that you strengthen working conditions, which become learning conditions for students,” he says.

The legislation would remove a requirement that charter school teachers carry a Maryland teaching certificate, which Johnson says guarantees teachers have classroom management skills they need to be effective.

But Keiffer Mitchell, a former Democratic Delegate from Baltimore who is now on Hogan’s staff, says the fears are overblown. He says charter schools are committed to providing quality education, so they’ll look for highly qualified, if un-credentialed, teachers who can push their innovative approach. He says charters won’t just hire anyone “standing on the street looking for a job to teach our children.”

As for quality and accountability, Mitchell says there’s nothing in the bill  Accountability is built into the law, he says, because charter operators have to re-apply for a charter every five years. If they don’t show results, they’ll be shut down.

“That is a very high amount of pressure to perform,” he says, adding that “charter schools are willing to take [that pressure] in exchange for the flexibility and the autonomy.”

Last week, Hogan went to charter-rich Baltimore to promote his legislation at Empowerment Academy on the West Side. He was serenaded by second and third graders singing the school song, and read “The Little Engine That Could” with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It was a nod to the bipartisan support he hopes his bill might attract.

“It’s not a republican issue, democrat issue. It’s not a liberal or conservative issue,” he said. “This is about kids and providing them with the opportunity to get a good education.”

But while the Democrat in the White House may support a charter reform agenda, Hogan must convince skeptical Democrats in the State House that his bill is the right way forward.

Del. Sheila Hixson, whose Ways and Means committee will take up the legislation this afternoon, says she thinks the state’s charter law works. Maryland has remained at the top of education rankings – so she says the state must be doing something right. But, she said, she’s keeping an open mind.

“If they have something that we can live with, we’ll certainly look at it and give it a fair shot. But on the face of it we don’t know why we have to change right now,” she said.

Next week, the legislation will be in front of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee. Chairman Joan Carter Conway says she sees no way this bill will pass her committee without major changes.

“We won’t have de-certificated teachers. We will not have that. We will not have union busting,” she said, saying that those and other provisions of the bill struck her as a move to allow for what amounts to publicly funded private schools.

Although Senate President Mike Miller earlier pointed to charter reform as one area of Hogan’s legislative agenda Democrats might be able to support, Hogan’s proposal seems to have little chance of going further than a chairwoman’s desk drawer without being fundamentally changed. Miller also said any charter bill will be hard to pass if more funding for public education can’t be found in Hogan’s budget.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.