Dozens of supporters and opponents of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's charter school expansion proposal squared off in a crowded room in Annapolis Thursday to share their hopes and concerns for the bill.
Hogan's bill would allow charter schools to qualify for funding through the state's capital improvement program and exempt employees from state teacher certification. Charter schools could also apply for a waiver from the state that would free it from all laws and regulations that govern public schools.
Supporters argue the legislative proposal would promote flexibility and freedom in the school system.
"This legislation is about allowing innovations and flexibility in the ways we educate our children," said Keiffer Mitchell, special adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan. "A one-size-fits-all model does not work for education."
Critics, however, warned the effort would set a dangerous precedent.
"The bill before you is an extreme bill that proposes a radical approach to charters that's proven a failure in other states," said Alison Perkins-Cohen, executive director for the Office of New Initiatives at Baltimore Public Schools. "It undervalues teachers, it threatens some of our most vulnerable students and attacks the principle of local control of education."
Charter schools are publicly funded and have more freedom than conventional schools to establish their curriculum and set policies. They are often operated by nonprofit organizations of groups of parents.
Maryland adopted its charter school law in 2003 and today has about 50 schools, a majority of them in Baltimore City.
At times the hearing was standing room only, with some of the more than 50 people and statehouse media spilling into the hallways to huddle around laptops streaming the testimony online.
Joy Schaefer, chairwoman for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education's legislative committee, said the expansion of the current law would encourage third party operators in Maryland.
"This legislation would not just change the landscape of our public charter schools, it would change the landscape for every public school in the state of Maryland," Schaefer said.
Jason Botel, executive director of Maryland CAN, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the new law would still protect students and teachers in both school systems.
"There are bad charter laws out there," Botel said. "My read of this bill is it's still a very restrictive bill. Almost every change in there still requires local and/or state school board approval."
Earlier in the day, Hogan defended his bill, as well as an education tax credit for people who make contributions to private or parochial schools.
"My goal is to ensure every child in Maryland has a world class education, regardless of what neighborhood they grew up in," he said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told reporters Thursday that he supported the improvement of charter schools but "we've gotta come up with more money for public education, that's our first line of defense."