By ANDREW KATZ
WASHINGTON (Jan. 14, 2010) - A leading charter school advocacy organization has ranked Maryland's charter school law last among 38 states and the District of Columbia, just as the state's public school system reached No. 1 in the nation.
The ranking by Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works to increase the number and quality of charter schools, as well as public policy surrounding them, comes on the heels of Education Week's Quality Counts 2010 report that listed Maryland as the No. 1 public school system in the nation—for the second-straight year.
The Free State earned a B-plus from Education Week, while Virginia and D.C. were graded B-minus and D-plus, respectively.
The charter school report failed to taint the good news from Education Week. Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara Mikulski praised students, parents and educators for a job well done.
"Even during these difficult economic times, we've continued to fully fund efforts to build new, state-of-the-art classrooms, integrate curriculum across all grade levels, and hire and retain the nation's best educators," O'Malley's statement said.
Mikulski also highlighted the reasons for the ranking: "More than anything, this shines a light on the terrific work of our teachers, students, principals, and parents, without whom this distinction wouldn't be possible."
So if Maryland has the best public school system, where's the need for charter schools?
"One of the great things about Maryland law is that we've continued to grow some very innovative charter schools in our state and they've been successful," said Maryland State Department of Education Spokesman Bill Reinhard. "Very strong and very good."
"Charter schools offer parents an option," he continued. "There is nothing more important to a parent than their child's education and there are some parents that believe charter schools, which is a public school, offers a very important option for their kids."
Noting the charter law has "served Maryland well" over the years, Reinhard added that some parents prefer the different curriculum, varied day lengths and course rigors available at charter schools.
In the report, Alliance calculated that 12,249 students are enrolled this school year by 36 public charter schools in Maryland.
Signed into law on May 22, 2003, by then-Gov. Robert L. Erlich Jr., the Maryland Public Charter School Act authorized the establishment of public charter schools, according to the education department.
Months later, the department released the Maryland Public Charter Schools Model Policy and Resources Guide, which was "designed to guide local boards of education and school systems in Maryland in assisting individuals and organizations interested in establishing public charter schools."
While Maryland won points for not enforcing a cap on the number of charter schools that can be established within its boundaries, the state's few charter authorities contributed to its low score.
"Maryland law provides local school boards as the only authorizer option for most applicants," the report notes. "Under little circumstances, the State Board of Education may authorize the restructuring of a non-charter public school as a charter school."
Reinhard acknowledged some weak points the state could improve, including providing additional charter authority bodies.
"I think there's a level of expectation we have for our schools, not just for our charter schools, and we wanted to make sure our schools are in it for the long haul," Reinhard said.
Alliance recommends Maryland toughen its charter law so it better aligns with its four "quality control" components in its model law: transparency in decision-making, basing charter contracts on performance, improved monitoring and clear processes for renewals.
To view the results of Alliance's report, visit http://www.publiccharters.org/dashboard/.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.