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Ehrlich will push for more charter schools if elected; will Obama help?

Governor Bob Ehrlich announced that if the voters put him back in office, he will try to strengthen Maryland's charter school law. The law was enacted in 2003, during Ehrlich's first legislative session.

When I was working for the Governor, I had the opportunity to help draft the bill and assist the Governor in persuading the Maryland General Assembly to pass the charter school law. While the law is not as strong as it could or should be, there are over 40 charter schools operating in Maryland that serve over 10,000 students, because of Ehrlich's vision in 2003.  O'Malley appears to be trying to claim credit for the charter school success, despite his never having done anything to promote them during his term.

Charter schools are public schools that are operated by groups other than the local school board.  In some states, groups of parents have gotten together to form a charter school as their neighborhood school.  As public schools, charter schools receive public education funds, and are allowed to also receive private sector funds as well. 

Charter schools allow for flexibility in curricula (within state guidelines), teaching methods, and specialization (such as with a math/science charter school), for students who would otherwise not have such an opportunity. Charter school operators typically believe that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to educating our youth.

The primary opposition to charter schools comes from local school boards and teachers' unions. The boards argue that charter schools take money from students remaining in the traditional public schools, and are keen to retain authority to permit or deny charter school applications. The unions are wary of any alternative teacher compensation arrangements or extended work hours for teachers-even if the teachers agree! These two groups were successful in watering down Ehrlich's proposal in 2003.

Ehrlich proposes to "strip local school boards of their veto power over new charter schools, ease access to funding, and permit the schools to operate without union contracts." If enacted, these changes would greatly encourage the opening of charter schools in Maryland, allowing more students and parents to have greater educational opportunities.

In 2003, one of the historically black universities in Maryland was interested in opening a charter boarding school, but it abandoned the idea when the law was passed with the requirements that (1) the local school board approve the charter school application and (2) the teachers must be members of the local teachers' union. In other states with strong charter school laws, public universities serve as chartering authorities, and teachers are not forced to belong to the union.

Candidate Barack Obama supported charter schools. It will be interesting to see if Obama would publicly support Governor Ehrlich's efforts to increase the number of charter schools in Maryland, if Ehrlich wins his old job back.

To support Ehrlich, leaving aside the potential issue of crossing of political party lines, Obama would have to take a position opposite to one of the Democrats' strongest constituencies-the teachers' union. On the other hand, supporting Ehrlich's charter school plan would give Maryland students more opportunities to be successful.

One can only hope that creating educational opportunities for students would be reason enough to secure the President's support to convince a Maryland General Assembly that is dominated by Democrats elected with teachers' union support.

Dilip Paliath has a general law practice in Towson. For more information, see www.paliath.com.

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