January 29, 2012

Part 2: Charter schools face opposition except in Baltimore

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Public charter schools have had a difficult time expanding in Maryland, except in Baltimore, which has 37 of the state’s 51 charter schools.

chesapeake science point science fair

Students from Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School in Hanover participate in the science fair. Photo courtesy of the CSP website.

Charters applications are often rejected – more often in some jurisdictions than others – and some counties have no charter schools.

Charter school advocates can easily identify some of these challenges, but they are rather complicated. David Borinsky, chairman of the Maryland Charter School Network, said that there’s nobody in Maryland who is necessarily opposed to charter schools, or actively fighting against establishing new ones, though some advocates may disagree.

All charter schools applications must be approved by school board where they are located. Some school boards and administrators are more open-minded on charter schools such Baltimore, where school CEO Andre Alonso has been enthusiastic. Others have boards that are loath to allow charter schools.

Sometimes, charter schools are seen as competitors to the public schools, said Borinsky and Alison Consoletti, research director of the Center for Education Reform. Interested in holding their monopoly on public education, they said some school boards less open to the idea of charter schools might use that argument to turn applications down.

Diverting money from other schools

A common argument against charter schools is that they divert money from the public school system, since they also get some of the funding sent to school boards from the state and federal government. Borinsky calls this argument a “red herring.”

“Everything you do diverts money from something,” Borinsky said. “The question you should be asking is, ‘Is it a good idea or not?’”

Consoletti said that one obstacle to establishing charter schools is that socioeconomic background impacts the way people see and think about them. Many charter school programs are aimed at turning around failing inner city schools, and are successful. However, there are also many school districts in the suburbs. Suburban districts tend to have more successful public school programs, so the utility of a charter school is not always obvious.

“If the current program is working great for their kids, they don’t really need another school,” she said.

Montgomery County considered difficult

Montgomery County has earned the reputation among charter school advocates as being a difficult place to get a charter school. Of all of the applications the district has received, only one charter has been accepted: the Community Montessori School, scheduled to begin operation in the fall.

Public school spokesman Dana Tofig said Montgomery County’s reputation is undeserved. Five years ago, former superintendent Jerry Weast tried to start a charter school through the KIPP model in the district, but met with problems. Other than that, the district has only received three applications for charter schools.

The board has been open with its reasons for rejecting charters and held a detailed evaluation process. Many of the concerns that Montgomery County has had with applications have to do with issues in the curriculum and questions of the institutions’ financial stability, Tofig said. It has nothing to do with not wanting charter schools.

“Our superintendent is on the record as saying that charter schools have a place in public education, but they are not a panacea,” Tofig said. “We welcome those that face all of the issues all schools have: great teaching and great leaders make a great school.”

In order to help bring more charter schools into the fold, Montgomery County has a detailed website that offers information on what it is looking for in its charter school applicants. There are also technical assistance workshops, where applicants can learn more about the exact process to go through to successfully apply to start a charter school.

Tofig made no excuses for the stringent approval process.

“We have high expectations for all of our schools,” he said “We certainly wouldn’t have any different expectations for a charter school than for a school run by MCPS.”

Afya Public Charter School students

Students at Afya Public Charter School in Baltimore smile for the camera. Photo courtesy of the Afya Public Charter School website.

Maryland’s charter school law criticized

Many of the problems charter schools face come directly out of the state’s charter school law, which opponents say is very short and unspecific.

Consoletti, whose organization rated Maryland’s charter school law a D, said that the biggest problem is that approving new charter schools is only in the hands of the local board of education. At best, she said, a board of education would not have the time to spend on charter school applications and issues. At worst, the board of education could be philosophically against charter schools.

States that do better on the Center for Education Reform’s scorecard, such as the District of Columbia, have separate authorities that oversee charter schools  Some states have an independent agency that deals with charter schools. Others partner with universities and have them monitor and work with the charter schools. Some states have more than one entity that keeps tabs on charter schools.

Another problem with the charter school law is that the funding language is vague. Charter schools are supposed to get the same per-pupil dollars as public schools. Whether they do is difficult to tell, since funds are disbursed differently. Though it doesn’t matter much, since charter schools have different expenses than their publicly run counterparts. Many charter schools have to find and pay for their space.

This has been a bone of contention in Anne Arundel County, where Chesapeake Science Point Charter School has argued that it hasn’t gotten full-funding from the school system, which disputes the claim.

“The facilities are really a problem,” Borinsky said. “Some are really fortunate and are in school buildings, so they don’t have to do much. Others have to pay 10-15% of their revenues on rent for the building where they are. So is the funding really equivalent?”

Unionized teachers

Maryland also requires that teachers in charter schools be unionized. Consoletti said this can be a problem when a charter school has unconventional hours, or a longer-than-usual school day. The teachers themselves may be excited to teach under those conditions, but the union may enforce provisions like asking for overtime pay. Consoletti said that this issue is murky throughout the state.

Curriculum also is not as independent as it could be, and Borinsky said that the standards that a charter school must meet are not clear. He suggested that the General Assembly pass legislation making the standards more obvious and more easily – and uniformly – followed by all school districts.

Consoletti said that Maryland has a lot of work before it can be where it should with charter schools.

“It’s good to have a law, but there’s a long way to go to have a strong law,” she said. “Maryland’s laws haven’t changed too much in almost 10 years.”

  • It is clear that Baltimore’s public school system is improved with the addition of charters, over 40% of DC public school students attend charters, and other jurisdictions could benefit as well. Howard County is another jurisdiction that has not approved any charter school applications. School Board Chair Sandra French told me she supported charters but expected them to achieve at least the same standards as existing public schools in the County.  That’s a high bar to reach, but numerous charters throughout the country have innovative programming that exceed the local educational standards. They are setting a new bar by meeting the needs of children that are not well served by the public school system. It’s a model that deserves increased consideration.