Lawmakers review charter school laws as Hogan pushes for more

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By Rebecca Lessner

For MarylandReporter.com

Three reports focusing on public charter schools could spur changes to the system, just as newly inaugurated Gov. Larry Hogan takes office with a promise to expand the use of charter schools in Maryland.

The Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs committee hosted a briefing Thursday on a charter school report submitted by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Consultants from the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy identified ways in which Maryland can improve the charter school program already in place based off of current charter-school performance levels. But legislative staff questioned the validity of the report.

The MSDE report highlighted charter schools’ ability to open creative, learning opportunities through a diversity of programming such as language classes or different approaches. It also called for changes to the school’s lottery system and funding structure.

The attendance level for charter schools has been explosive. It grew from 196 students at the enactment of Maryland Charter School laws in 2003, to an estimated 20,000 students in 10 years.

“Charter Schools are one of the most innovative learning opportunities in our system, they have kept families from leaving Baltimore City,” David Stone, vice chairman  of Baltimore City Public Schools, told the Senate committee.

Maryland charter schools law ranked last in country

Shortly following the MSDE report, a roundup of scores was posted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in January giving a dismal rating to Maryland for the 2013-2014 year. Maryland ranked in last place, 43rd out of the 42 states and the District of Columbia, who have enacted public charter school laws through their state legislature (eight states are yet to implement charter school laws).

Maryland was judged according to the National Alliances model state law outline.

“While some states fell in the rankings simply because other states enacted stronger laws, it is important to note that these changes represent progress for the overall movement, not black eyes for any set of states,” stated Nina Rees and Todd Ziebarth, President and Vice President of NAPCS.

The third report came in last week, when Legislative Services sent a letter to the Senate and House, calling into question the quality of Maryland State Department of Education’s fact checking and data collection authenticity.

Proposed charter schools approved on case-by-case basis

In Maryland, like many states, there is no “cap” on the number of charter schools allowed to start up each year. A unique feature to Maryland law, seen as regressive by outsiders, is the use of waivers and required approval from local school boards to start up these charters.

Currently under Maryland law, charter schools must first appeal for new locations at the local school board level and, if refused, they may bring it to the state level. Last year, 28 appeals were denied at the local level while 18 were dismissed at the state level. In the end, six to seven cases were able to move forward successfully, looking forward to their start in the coming year.

In the Senate’s Education, Health & Environmental Affairs committee briefing on Thursday, a panel representing MSDE spoke of how these dismissals are a “case by case” decision.

New board would fast-track charter school expansion

Overall the MSDE report asks members of the General Assembly, if they should choose to expand the charter school program, to create a “State-level Independent Chartering Board”, and more funds, either on the state or local level, to help cover the per-pupil allotment of new students entering the school.

If the Independent Chartering Board were to be created, it would potentially put Maryland on a faster route to expansion of charter schools and raise Maryland’s status in the ranking of states implementing charter laws.

There are some discrepancies over whether Maryland’s strict laws requiring charter schools to go through school boards for approval has kept Maryland schools from experiencing financial difficulties, as found in other states with “loose” charter school laws.

Also not covered by state or local funding is the facilities’ expenses, which creates a struggle for charter schools in obtaining property for the location of new schools. The rest of the operation for charter schools is state funded. With every new addition of a charter school, the local school board must find the funds to support it.

Total schools choices greeted with skepticism

The Senate committee questioned the MSDE report’s “total schools” used as the groundwork for determining success rates. Carol Beck, the Director for the Office of School Innovation at the Maryland State Department of Education, told the committee that the total schools number was “47 public charter schools in five jurisdictions totaling an estimated 18,000 k-12 .” This number does not include 11 schools closed due to underperformance issues.

Vice Chairman Sen. Paul Pinsky asked MSDE during the committee briefing to consider these school closures in their data report. The National Alliance’s report used an estimated 21,397 students, which included an estimated 52 schools during the 2014-2014 school year, a total that differs MSDE’s data by 3,397 pupils.

The Department of Legislative Services, which received and analyzed the submitted MSDE study, called for House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller to give the findings of the MSDE report “only as much weight as the paucity of data and analysis deserves.”

DLS finds report lacking

DLS Policy Director Warren Deschenaux found that the MSDE report also only “partially answered” 13 out of 14 questions asked by the legislature. The 14th question was “unmet,” meaning ignored altogether, because the University of Baltimore could not locate enough data to answer.

The legislative staff questioned this statement by saying the data “may or may not have been truly unavailable.”

During the committee briefing, the panel stressed that decisions on charter schools should be “parent driven, not market driven,” and that parents are “engaged enough in their child’s futures to make a choice” to switch to charter.

Much of the data collected in the MSDE report was found to be gathered from public forums and interviews “in lieu of using Maryland data,” as stated in the Department of Legislative Services review. Overall, the MSDE report was lengthy and based on facts that were supported by “stakeholder interviews.” Legislative Services comments that “this anecdotal information is no substitute for data and analysis.”

Committee members asked that MSDE answer more questions and said the report would face further scrutiny.

Still, enrollment continues to climb for charter schools in Maryland as the school’s stack up lengthy waitlists and rely on lottery drawings to determine admittance.