By ABBY BROWNBACK
ANNAPOLIS (October 16, 2010)Charter schools are here to stay in Maryland, no matter whether voters re-elect incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley or former Gov. Bob Ehrlich. But the two would offer slightly different approaches for the future of this mainstay of education reform.
The distinction notably less stark than the candidates' differences on issues like funding lies in the emphasis the two assign to charter schools' place in the education system and their role in reforming that system.
Ehrlich, who signed the Maryland Public Charter School Act of 2003 into law, said he would aim to double the number of charter schools and to create a body independent of county school boards that can authorize charters.
"They've given a lot of poor children an opportunity to succeed," Ehrlich, a Republican, said of Maryland's 44 charter schools at a campaign event on Oct. 1. "Charter schools are most relevant where the traditional zoned schools are failing."
O'Malley, a Democrat, has said he is willing to evaluate whether the law needs to be strengthened, but charter schools are not mentioned in the education section of his campaign website. Campaign ads, though, boast that the number of charter schools in the state more than doubled on the governor's watch.
O'Malley emphasizes charter schools as part of the larger equation of statewide public school reform, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. And now that the governor's administration has remedied "a crisis in school construction funding" with the infusion of $1.3 billion over the past four years, O'Malley is willing to look at extending capital funding for construction and improvements to charter schools.
But Maryland's law is adequate, Abbruzzese said, evidenced by the state's receipt of President Obama's Race to the Top education funding a competition that emphasized "ensuring successful conditions for charter schools and other innovative schools," according to the scoring rubric.
Maryland, however, received fewer than 28 of the 40 points possible for this criterion, partially because the state guarantees equitable per-pupil funding but does not currently offer facilities funding to charter schools. Those points pushed Maryland to a sixth-place finish among the 10 winners in the program's second phase.
Ehrlich's Roadmap for 2020 includes plans to strengthen the state's weak according to charter school advocates statute to create bodies independent of county boards of education that can grant charters. These bodies could be universities, non-profits or institutes created for the purpose of authorizing charters, which are notoriously difficult to earn in some well-to-do parts of the state.
The former governor said he would take advantage of the president's affinity for charter schools to push the issue in Maryland.
Both Ehrlich and O'Malley deserve some of the credit for the achievement of the state's charter schools, said David Borinsky, the president of the Maryland Charter School Network.
"They're not politically toxic anymore," Borinsky said. "Charter schools are part of the education mainstream, so it's comfortable for politicians to claim credit for some of the successes."
And while Borinsky said he is not concerned about a possible repeal of the charter school law depending on the outcome of November's election, advocates do have questions about whether charter schools will move forward in terms of greater autonomy and increased facilities funding.
In Montgomery County, Heidi Mordhorst isn't so worried about funding as she is about Global Garden Public Charter School's attempt to be one of the first charter schools in a county known for its unfriendliness toward charters.
Mordhorst is vice president of the board of directors of Global Garden, which currently exists only on paper. This year the school's organizers were denied a charter by the county Board of Education and have appealed the decision to the State Board of Education.
"We believe in public education as a right and a privilege, but we also believe charter schools really are the mechanism by which school reform can be achieved," Mordhorst said.
Some school districts within the state agree, Borinsky said.
"They see that charter schools are just a tool in the toolbox for enhancing the educational experience for children," he said. "They're a permanent fixture in the landscape."
In addition to drawing both talented people and financial capital into public school systems, Maryland's charter schools have facilitated "astonishing" progress among minority students, Borinsky said.
Baltimore City's KIPP Ujima Village Academy, where almost 99 percent of the students are African-American, consistently registers some of the state's highest scores on the eighth-grade math state assessment, Borinsky said.
Data from the state Department of Education shows that in 2010, 96.9 percent of eighth-grade students at Ujima Village earned "advanced" or "proficient" scores on the math section of the Maryland State Assessment. Statewide, only 65.4 percent of eighth-graders scored as well.
There is little consensus on how to most effectively replicate academic achievements like Ujima Village's, but perhaps no one recognizes the need for school improvement more than Andres Alonso, who, as the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, is responsible for the education of more than 82,000 students. But, he warns, the label "charter school" does not automatically make a school good.
"We have 170 schools that are neither contract nor charter schools, and many of them are making extraordinary progress," Alonso said. "It's not about me preferring charters to traditional to contract schools. It's about me liking good schools. ... The goal is a great school for every kid."
Both candidates reiterate this all-purpose goal, but they do differ on issues like the geographic cost-of-education index, a non-mandatory state program that awarded $126 million in fiscal year 2011 to Maryland school systems, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where education expenses are higher.
Ehrlich did not fund the index as governor and has said he would not in a second term, using the funds instead to offset his proposed tax cuts.
O'Malley has fully funded the index the past two fiscal years with federal stimulus dollars, which end next year. But the governor intends to continue to fund the index, Abbruzzese said, the cost of which is figured into the $1.2 billion deficit present in drafts of the next fiscal year's budget.
"As we emerge from this national recession, we'll be on a steady diet of additional cuts," Abbruzzese said, "but cuts will not be made to public education."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.