Maryland Charter Legislation Out of Sync with Other States

A charter-school bill will be introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this year. That is the good news. What sort of charter-school bill? Well, that may be the bad news.

In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to enact a charter-school law. Despite current intentions, Maryland is by now well behind the curve, being one of only 17 states having no legislation authorizing such schools. At present, 33 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have passed charter-school legislation in one form or another (though not all have extant schools yet and many states’ legislation leaves much to be desired).1 As of October 1998, there were 1,128 charter schools in operation, with another 157 approved.2

What is a charter school? You would think there would be a simple answer. But there is not. From a conservative perspective, a charter school is, or at least should be, a school free of most school board interference, contracted to educate a certain number of children for a certain amount of money. The charter is simply the contract and the school is any entity capable of satisfying the goals specified in the charter.

On the other hand, from the left, the teachers’ unions see charter schools as little more than alternative public schools, designed to be as similar as possible to the regular public schools. One need only look at the teachers’ list of “criteria” for union approval of charter schools – generally a wish list for single-salary schedules, restrictive dismissal practices, mandated certification and all the other unfortunate manifestations of the collective bargaining process.3 The National Education Association believes, for example, that, when charter schools are proposed, “all affected public school employees must be directly involved in the design, implementation and governance of these programs”4 – like asking Giant employees for advice in setting up a new Safeway.

The other matter to be established at the outset is that charter schools, however defined, are not an end in themselves. As table 1 shows, charter schools have not become the enclaves of pampered white children that critics originally claimed they would.5 All the same, despite charter schools’ impressive record of enrolling minority and disadvantaged children, this is not enough. There is nothing wrong with charter schools, properly devised. But if we assume that the reason for their creation in the first place is frustration with regular public schools, then the establishment of a handful of charters will represent nothing more than a few islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. Charters must be simply the first step on the road to real school reform.

Nevertheless, Maryland must do all in its power (a) to pass charter legislation but (b) in so doing not to allow itself to be sidetracked by entrenched interests eager to co-opt reform for selfish purposes. Even the Baltimore Sun – hardly a known enemy of liberalism is general – calls the education unions the “defenders of the status quo.”6 So, if the unions are well pleased with the legislation that emerges from the General Assembly in a few weeks, it probably is not a very good bill.

Federal Standards
Maryland at last intends to clamber aboard the charter bandwagon. To this end, during the 1998 legislative session, a bill was introduced to authorize charter schools in this state. The avowed intent of the bill – H.B. 999 – was to qualify Maryland for federal funds under the Federal Charter School Grant program. As previously described by this organization,7 this grant program was revised as of last fall with the passage of the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-278). This latter legislation means that states must provide for the creation of reasonably bureaucrat-free charter schools to qualify for federal moneys. It was in anticipation of this new federal law that H.B. 999 was last session shelved for further study by a task force over the summer and fall. Every union member’s dream, it was realized that the profoundly weak H.B. 999 would not have qualified this state for a nickel from the feds.

Maryland’s Proposed Legislation
The new and improved would-be Maryland legislation was rolled out by the task force on December 9, 1998.8 Six of the task force’s 12 members were in one way or another associated with the public education establishment – and the results showed. The new language is an improvement over H.B. 999, though it still has a long way to go.

Table 2 shows how the task force’s proposed legislation stacks up against the federal law that now sets the parameters for the revised federal grant program. Like H.B. 999 last year, the new language is deficient. Federal law says funding priority will be given to states committed to increasing annually the number of charter schools. Maryland makes no mention of annual numbers. Washington prefers that charter-approving powers not reside monopolistically with local school boards. Maryland fails. Where local authorities do have a chartering monopoly, Washington insists upon an appeals process for applicants who are denied charter status. Maryland failed last year, though this year’s language does provide for a binding appeal to the state school board.

Finally, federal law gives preference to states granting a “high degree of autonomy” to charter schools in matters pertaining to “budgets and expenditures.” Draft federal language previously referred simply to “autonomy,” without the qualifier about budgets and spending. Nonetheless, Maryland arguably fails even this watered down definition of autonomy inasmuch as the proposed bill mandates that charter-school teachers must retain union membership and that standard public school procedures must be adhered to for service and supply procurement. This will drive up costs, thus cramping charter schools’ budget freedom.

Maryland and the Nation
Leaving aside Maryland’s hopes for qualifying for federal funding, it is instructive to examine how this year’s proposed language compares with charter-school legislation already enacted in other states. Table 3 shows some key provisions of the laws in the 29 states (plus D.C.) that had passed legislation as of October 1997. (Since then, another four states – Idaho, Missouri, Utah and Virginia – have passed charter legislation, though details were not available for inclusion in this table.)

Local Monopoly: One complaint frequently made by charter-school proponents is that it is unhealthy to grant local school boards a monopoly on authorizing charter schools. As a recent Hudson Institute report puts it, a “charter school’s fate ought not to rest in the hands of the district from which it ‘seceded’ – or seeks to secede.”9 The task force’s proposal for 1999 contains just such a monopoly. This puts Maryland very much in a minority among states. Of the 30 jurisdictions listed in table 3, only 11 grant local school boards a monopoly. To be fair, Maryland’s task force would grant a binding appeals process: A group petitioning for charter-school status but rejected by the local school board would have the right to appeal to the state school board, the decision of which would be final. This is an improvement from last year: H.B. 999 had no provision for any appeals process whatsoever.
Regulatory Burden: At the heart of the charter-school philosophy is independence – independence from union rules and bureaucratic hassle. Just as it did in 1998, Maryland looks doomed to flunk this particular test in 1999. One key to charter-school freedom is the encouragement of creativity in education. This is best accomplished, all else being equal, by granting automatic waivers from all state and local educational regulations except those pertaining to health and civil rights. Early drafts of the federal bill specified that, apart from essential ones, public-school regulations should automatically be waived for charter schools in an effort to encourage innovation. Unfortunately this provision was deleted from the final federal language. Nonetheless, the point remains that red tape and innovation do not an easy marriage make.

The Maryland task force seems not to have grasped this. In its proposed legislation, a charter school only may – not shall – “decide matters that relate to the operation of the school, including budgeting, curriculum and operating procedures.” Likewise, “unless the county board grants a waiver,” a charter school is bound by all school district policies for the “procurement of services, equipment or supplies.” Above all, a charter school must abide by “the provisions of law governing other public schools.” The state and county school boards may grant waivers from particular requirements, but only if the school can “demonstrate that the waiver will advance the educational goals and objectives of the school.” This is not promising, and it puts Maryland on the wrong side of the 18 jurisdictions that do grant automatic regulatory freedom.

Union Rules: Another necessary component for educational innovation is release from union rules. The task force’s report is severely deficient in this respect. Under the draft legislation, every charter teacher categorically “shall remain a member of the appropriate employee representative organization.” This will encourage the sort of initiative-stifling sloth prevalent in so many public schools, inhibiting principals’ ability to fire incompetents, prohibiting merit pay for good teachers.10 Additionally, this provision is very likely to deter individuals not currently associated with public education from petitioning to establish new charter schools. There again, that may very well be the intent. Be that as it may, by following this path, Maryland would once again be setting itself apart from most charter-permitting states. Only seven out of 30 states mandate adherence to union bargaining rules in the manner this state apparently intends to.

A related issue is teacher certification. Charter-school boosters often hold that it is advantageous to free charter schools from the public schools’ mandate that teachers be certified by whatever union-dominated standards board holds sway in the state. The unions object to this release, partially because non-certified teachers are less likely to be union influenced and partially out of concern for standards. One compromise is to allow a certain proportion of charter-school teachers to be exempted from the certification requirement. This seems sensible, though Maryland’s task force does not agree. Of jurisdictions in table 3, 20 exempt all or some charter teachers from certification requirements. So, again, Maryland finds itself in a minority.

Who Can Petition? The unions are adamant that charters be restricted to schools that are currently public schools (known as “conversions”) or, if worse comes to worst, to conversions and newly created organizations. On no account will the unions countenance the awarding of charter status to current private schools or home-school organizations. This is a pity, given private schools’ ability to educate many children very well on limited budgets. On average, private tuition costs at secondary schools are only about three-quarters of the costs to taxpayers of public education.11 Maryland, like most states, appears poised to rule out one potentially important source of charter education.

There is no particular reason to suppose that charter schools will save public education – in Maryland or anywhere else. When given freedom to operate, they are fine – as far as they go. But there will never be enough of them, and their liberating effects will be limited as long as they account for only a small fraction of public schools. One solution might be to turn all public schools into charter schools, site-managed, in competition for students and released from closed-shop bargaining regulations. In Maryland, the chances of that happening probably rank somewhere below the likelihood of a humidity-free summer in Baltimore.

Dr. Munro is the president of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research.

End Notes

[Back] 1. U.S. Charter Schools, Inc., “State Information & Contacts,” Internet site (http://, downloaded January 11, 1999.

[Back] 2. Center for Education Reform, “Charter School Highlights and Statistics,” Internet site (, downloaded January 11, 1999.

[Back] 3. Myron Liebermann, The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and the AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Students, Parents, Teachers and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy (New York, N.Y.: Free Press, 1997), pp. 249-250.

[Back] 4. National Education Association (NEA), “A-26. Charter and Nontraditional Public School Options,” NEA 1998-99 Resolutions, Internet site (, downloaded January 12, 1999.

[Back] 5. For a further discussion, see Gregg Vanourek, Bruno V. Manno, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Louann A. Bierlein, “The Educational Impact of Charter Schools,” Hudson Institute Charter Schools in Action: Final Report, Part V, July 1997, p. 2, table 1.

[Back] 6. Editorial, “Creating a Vision for Md.’s Legislature,” (Baltimore) Sun, January 10, 1999, p. 2E.

[Back] 7. Douglas P. Munro, “Flunking H.B. 999: Do’s and Don’ts for Charter Legislation in Maryland,” Calvert News, Vol. III, No. 2, Fall 1998.

[Back] 8. Task Force on Charter Schools, “Draft for Review and Comment by Members of the Task Force on Public Charter Schools,” dated December 1, 1998, distributed on December 9.

[Back] 9. Chester E. Finn, Jr., Bruno V. Manno, Louann A. Bierlein and Gregg Vanourek, “The Policy Perils of Charter Schools,” Hudson Institute Charter Schools in Action: Final Report, Part III, July 1997, p. 2.

[Back] 10. For an extensive discussion of this issue, see George W. Liebmann, “The Agreement: How Federal, State and Union Regulations Are Destroying Public Education in Maryland,” Calvert Issue Brief, Vol. II, No. 2, July 1998.

[Back] 11. For a further discussion of this issue, see Douglas P. Munro, “Public vs. Private: A Reality Check on the BCPS,” Calvert Comment, Vol. I, No. 1, April 1996.

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