One of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top legislative priorities appeared to be in trouble yesterday after the Senate passed a charter schools bill that the administration calls unacceptable.
"This is about kids, empowering kids," said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. "If interest groups want to water down this bill, they need to do it somewhere else."
Democrats are incensed by the Republican administration's hard line and warn that this might be the governor's only chance to win legislative approval of charter schools.
"It's a very fragile coalition of people we have put together, and after this year, I don't know what we could do if it were to die," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat and charter school advocate.
The Senate voted 38-8 yesterday to pass a bill sponsored by Dyson that allows private groups to establish charter schools if they receive approval from local school boards. Rejected applicants can appeal to the state Board of Education.
A charter school is organized by a private group but is considered part of the public school system because it is funded with tax dollars. The schools, which have greater freedom in curriculum and policies, are intended to give parents another option for educating their children.
The Senate proposal, which won bipartisan support, ensures that charter schools adhere to the same standards as their traditional public counterparts, including teachers' right to unionize. The House of Delegates is expected to take up similar legislation as early as this week.
The Senate bill was a compromise between charter schools supporters and local school boards and teachers unions, both of which vigorously opposed it in the past. "We overcame some incredible hurdles to get to this point," Dyson said.
But Ehrlich and Steele -- the administration's point-person on charter schools -- said the General Assembly proposals are too "weak" and will likely be vetoed if not changed.
"We don't want to create more obstacles for charter schools. We want a sensible proposal," Steele said after the Senate vote. "If we don't get one, I am inviting the governor to veto the bill, and we will start over again [next year] and get it right."
Ehrlich said he wants "the strongest charter bill possible" and called on the legislature to come up with a proposal more to his liking.
The governor noted that $200 million in federal aid is available for states with charter schools laws. Maryland is one of 11 states without a law, which means that charter schools -- while technically legal in the state -- are not eligible for the aid.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Dyson say it will be hard -- if not impossible -- to get a majority of the House and Senate to go along with the type of bill embraced by the administration. Ehrlich's proposal "strikes hot buttons with a lot of different legislators," Busch said.
The biggest difference is over who has the power to allow groups to set up charter schools.
The governor's proposal, which a Senate committee rejected in lieu of Dyson's bill, would have allowed a wide variety of groups to issue charters, including the state school board, county boards, institutions of higher education and "any other entity designated by the state board."
Dyson's bill would permit the state school board to review any application rejected by a local school board.
Some charter school advocates say the Senate bill vests too much power in local boards, which have traditionally resisted granting charters.
"There is no incentive for the local school board to grant a charter," said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network. Gardner is urging the governor to veto the Senate bill in its current form.
Steele said the administration is uncomfortable with the provision in the Senate bill that gives teachers the right to join the Maryland State Teachers Association, which could mean increased labor costs for the new schools. The administration also wants added flexibility for charter schools to be exempt from some laws and regulations applied to other public schools.
But most Republican senators apparently do not share the administration's opposition to the current form of the bill, as all but one decided it was not worth fighting yesterday.
"I think the bill we have got, if it gets through, will get us started," said Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican.