November 29, 2002 | Commentary on Education
All Joe Hawkins and his group of educators wanted to do was start a charter school in Montgomery County. They wanted to set up a school to try to close the achievement gap for some black boys who had been underserved by Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
Superintendent Jerry Weast knew all about the problem Mr. Hawkins and his group sought to address. Beginning when he took over MCPS in August 1998, Mr. Weast spoke at dozens of community meetings to discuss the achievement gap. He would label it the county's most pressing educational problem and display maps that identified the problem areas -- those with highest concentrations of black and immigrant residents.
But when Mr. Hawkins took his plan to the Montgomery County Board of Education the next year, Mr. Weast proved no help at all. In fact, the superintendent urged the board to reject the group's first application, because, he said, it would cost too much to renovate the abandoned MCPS school building that the group planned to use for the charter school. When the group addressed that problem, Mr. Weast came back with a new objection -- the curriculum did not differ enough from what those students could learn in traditional schools to make it worth the money.
Finally, the group gave up. With Mr. Weast and the teachers' unions against it and nowhere to turn for a fair hearing, the applicants realized they had no hope. "The state," Mr. Hawkins says, "needs a fair application process."
If Gov.-elect Bob Ehrlich does nothing else during his first General Assembly, which begins in January, he should address this situation. He should push for laws that grant educational choice to parents in Maryland. That means a charter-school law that sets up application processes that provide a chance for success. It means a law that steers clear of arbitrary restrictions on funding, autonomy or the number of charters.
Public charter schools get relief from burdensome regulations in exchange for accountability for results. Some 39 states and the District already have taken this step to improve education. All over the country, committed parents, teachers, universities and other non-profits have opened schools to serve students left behind by the system. Offering choice also means giving parents frustrated by failing public schools vouchers or tax credits to move their children to more successful private schools. It also means opening up public-school choice, encouraging home-schooling and virtual learning. In short, it means giving parents the opportunity to choose the best learning environment for their children.
Mr. Ehrlich faces an uphill battle against a powerful state teachers' union and a General Assembly controlled by the other party. He has one thing on his side, though -- it's hard to defend the status quo. At more than $6 billion per year -- or $7,847 per student -- Maryland's educational expenditures rank in the top third among states. Despite spending millions and millions on school construction, reducing class sizes and technology -- the teachers' unions' prescription for Maryland's educational ills -- overall scores on the 2001 Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) fell for most of the state's 24 school districts.
On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, almost three-fourths of Maryland's fourth-graders fell short of the "proficient" level in math, science or reading, and more than half of low-income children couldn't read or perform math or science at even the most basic level. The gap between white and black remains an embarrassment to the state. Meanwhile, choice -- both charter schools and vouchers -- has been shown to improve achievement, both among students who take advantage of these choices and those who remain in their neighborhood public schools. This "ripple effect" increases as opportunities increase. In other words, the more charter schools, the more all students benefit.
Seize the day, Mr. Ehrlich. The General Assembly has yet to seriously consider these alternatives. Maryland has fallen behind in the march toward educational freedom, and its students continue to fall farther behind in achievement. You'll never have more political capital. And you'll never have a better initiative to use it on.
Appeared in The Washington Times