Donald Fry: Maryland must nurture charter school development

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Earlier this week lawmakers began considering Governor Martin O’Malley’s proposed legislation to make key public education policy changes to better position Maryland for $250 million in federal “Race to the Top” funding.

Before this legislation was filed on February 15 there was some debate among education officials and the governor’s office as to whether Maryland needed to make any policy changes to qualify for “Race to the Top” funding, since Maryland’s school system has been ranked first in the nation by Education Week for two consecutive years.

If the bill is any indication, there is apparent agreement between state education officials and the governor that there are at least three policy changes needed to qualify for this new federal funding.

The bill would extend to three years the probationary period for new certified teachers to acquire tenure. It would also make student performance a significant evaluation criteria for teachers and principals, and would add incentive pay for highly qualified teachers and principals who agree to work in low-achieving public schools.

These are all measures supported by most business leaders who are interested in building a talented and knowledgeable future workforce.

However, if the issue is quality public education rather than simply filling in the proper blanks on a federal grant application, the state must do more. It must address an important policy issue for which Maryland has not received high marks from national education advocates – the manner in which our state supports the development of charter schools.

A 2009 study published by the Center for Education Reform judged Maryland to have the 9th weakest charter school law in the nation.

Charter schools, a dynamic new sector of independently-operated public schools of choice, are generally afforded autonomy to employ entrepreneurial, outside-the-box teaching and learning methods in smaller schools. Maryland currently has 11,500 students at 42 charter schools – 33 of which are in Baltimore City – and a waiting list of more than 3,000 students. Charter schools are all about innovation and change in public education.

But Maryland’s lack of equitable funding and its operational constraints for charter schools limit their autonomy and development, according to the Center for Education Reform report.

For example, our state’s charter schools receive an average of $9,700 per pupil compared to an average $12,700 per pupil received by conventional public schools. And charter school teachers in Maryland remain bound by the terms and work rules of the school districts’ collective bargaining contracts, the report notes.

It would be smart for the state to nurture the growth of quality charter schools by enacting policies that aggressively enable their development and by changing policies that serve as barriers.

While Maryland’s public schools, as a whole, have been judged to be among the best in the nation, the state must not be content to bask in self-praise. It must move aggressively to encourage innovation and to address many remaining challenges as it works to improve student achievement.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Baltimore City isn't alone is facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid -- a bad habit continues

Where's the outrage over crime?

Small business is where innovation lives
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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.