January 28, 2015

Lawmakers review charter school laws as Hogan pushes for more

Print More
girl at white board math class school (by mrcharly on Flickr)

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.

  • marjinwalker

    Not all states have charter school laws, so how can Maryland law be the worst in the nation? Also, the groups that are making these rankings are the pro-charter school expansion, not looking at the quality of public education overall. By all other estimates, Maryland public education is doing ok, despite the lack of funding. We don’t see the corruption that other states have seen, like Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.

  • ForConsideration

    Public education has not been the answer for so many children. That doesn’t mean public schools are evil or incompetent. But they are locked into a standardized curriculum that just doesn’t work for many kids. Charter schools offer an opportunity for a different approach to teaching, and in most cases to the advantage of the students. Not sure why so many are opposed to it. It costs less per student with better results (plenty of research on this). Let parents decide what is best for their children. Or is “pro-choice” an entitlement reserved only for pregnant women?

    • ksteve

      I’d rather not pay for any parent’s choice of sending their child to alternative schools than those that are open to all children without discrimination and that are controlled by us all through an elected or appointed school board. I submit that, if some public schools are not now satisfactory, it’s up to us to make them so. If a standardized curriculum is unsatisfactory, junk it and produce a curriculum that can work for as many kids as possible. There will apparently always be a few children with mental or physical problems who cannot function in a typical public school and so we need to provide for them in specialized schools. I’d rather that those too be public schools so that their operation can be controlled by the public in the same way as ordinary public schools. Charter schools, in my opinion, are an admission of failure that we should not rush to make. Public funding of private and/or religious schools should be absolutely out of the question. These are somebody else’s schools that can teach whatever they choose. The religious schools are even less deserving of public funding than non-religious private ones because they are constitutionally protected from public control and can discriminate at will in pupil and teacher selection as in what they teach. If some parents voluntarily choose non-public schools of any kind for their kids, it’s on them to pay the full cost of their choice themselves.

      • ForConsideration

        ksteve, I totally respect your right to have any opinion you want on this issue. Not suggesting my voice is the only one that counts. We all bring different ideas/perspectives/considerations to various issues. But, based on your comment, it doesn’t sound like you are too familiar with charter schools (perhaps I’m wrong). Respectfully, you are incorrect on many fronts. Charter schools can’t teach “whatever they want”. States drive most of the ‘outcomes’. The difference is that these schools get to pick their own path to the outcome. There is no “one size fits all”. There is also this thing called accreditation, and it’s pretty tough stuff. I have three kids in public school and one if a private school (he needed a different environment). Our choice, and we pay for it. But to be honest, his school has been accredited by THREE different groups (that’s pretty insane). Yes, they have more say over who they hire… they are a private school. And, yes, they can let a poor teacher go (although because they have more say in who they hire, I don’t think this happens very often). Just try to get rid of a poor teacher in a public school. My other three kids are in elementary, middle, and high schools. There are definitely teachers that are “not great” (to put it as politely as possible). But they will be there forever. One point you do bring up is ‘access’… and I agree with you there. Parents should have a say in where their kids go to school. Studies have shown that giving parents access to school choice raises the quality of ALL schools (bad schools step it up because they know folks will bail on them).
        As for private schools being an admission of ‘failure’, I see it just the opposite way. They are proof that there is a better way. They are models for teaching. They raise the bar and put pressure on other schools to perform better. They cost ‘less’ per student, not more. So, you would actually SAVE tax dollars, not spend more. If the goal is to successfully, and measurably educate as many kids as possible, Charter Schools should be embraces, not shunned.
        As for “religious” schools, again, I’d say let the data speak for itself. If a parent wants their kid to learn within an environment that is kicking out well learned and successful kids, who might learn a little about the bible along the way, great. You don’t think public schools indoctrinate kids with their own ideology? If you are spending $14k per student and you give parents a $2-4k credit to put them in a private school… that leaves you with upwards of $10k that can be put towards other students. It’s a win/win in my book.
        Anyway, if there was a town hall meeting on it, I’d want people like you participating. We need as many voices as possible and we all have important perspectives to consider. Ultimately, I think we are all hoping for the best possible education for our kids.

        • ksteve

          ForConsideration, Fortunately, we’re all entitled to our opinion here. However, if you read my previous comment, you’ll see that I was referring to private and/or religious schools when I said: These are someone’s else’s schools that can teach whatever they want. And, in my very first sentence, my reference to access concerned the fact that only our public schools are open to all children without discrimination. People can choose to try to get their children into some kind of alternative schools, but there is no assurance that they will succeed in that endeavor. Those schools can freely accept or reject whoever. They are truly the ones with the real choice. At any rate, those parents who do manage to get their child admitted to an alternative school should, like you, be willing to pay the full cost of so doing themselves. Since our public schools are open to them, the extra expense is driven by their choice and their choice alone. Finally, whatever “ideology” may be taught in our public schools, it is not a religious one. Any public school ideology is determined by our representative government. The general public has no say over what goes on in religious schools and I definitely don’t want to be forced to pay, directly or indirectly, for whatever it may be. Our Constitution’s First Amendment should protect us from having to do that.

          • ForConsideration

            Thanks for clarifying. You’re right. I missed that. And I understand your perspective on it. I’m more of a pragmatist. If you give folks $2k/year to send their kids to a private school, many would take that and pull their kids from public. The state is paying roughly $14k per kid. If a $2k credit would give the state $12k to spend on other kids, I’d call that a win. “Religious” schools don’t spend their time cramming doctrine down kids throats. They have academic accreditation standards to meet. There is a huge emphasis on academics. As for a “Bible” class, whatever. If you don’t think the school systems isn’t pushing an ideology, you’re mistaken. If you are really interested, you should dig much deeper. The folks writing the curriculums are primarily very liberal social progressive. They are also primarily atheistic, which meets every definition of a religion. Doesn’t make the “evil”, but make no mistake, they are pushing a very liberal social agenda… particularly in the early years. They are indoctrinating them with their own world-view.
            But again, I approach it more for a budgetary perspective. If giving a $2k credit to parents, and that allows you to save the other $12k… that money could be spent on paying teachers more (my wife is a public school teacher). You could spend more on school materials. More on improved facilities. More on math/science education. Personally, I think the “separation or church/state” is a red herring in terms of education. My son was crashing and burning in public school. Now, he’s taking high level English, Math, History, and Science courses and getting straight A’s. He’s going to be a great asset to our country’s future (no different from a similar public school kid). I’d call that a win/win. Anyway, appreciate the respectful dialogue. Your opinion is just as relevant as mine. Good that we can talk about it thoughtfully and respectfully. Maybe our elected officials could take a lesson from us! Have a GREAT weekend!

          • ksteve

            It’s obvious that we’ll never agree on this. Just about the last thing I’d want to do is pay parents to encourage them to pull the kids out of public schools and send them to non-public ones just so it might be financially advantageous. If all children attended our public schools where they can get an education that is free of other people’s religion or propaganda, whatever the cost to us taxpayers, I’d call that a win I’m willing, even happy, to spend whatever it takes to provide every child with an excellent education in our public schools. I don’t care about the degree of religion that is taught in non-public schools. I don’t want to be forced to pay for any of it. And I don’t regard those who determine what is taught in our public schools as some kind of uncontrolled foreign enemy who are indoctrinating children with an atheistic view of the world If the religion-free curriculum they come up with is too liberal for you, it’s not too liberal for me. For me, the separation of church and state is extremely important. It’s obviously not for you.
            So we will respectfully continue to disagree. I wish you a good weekend as well, but I think I’ll discontinue the dialogue here. Neither of us is going to persuade the other.

          • ForConsideration

            That’s fine. Good to have differing views. But to be clear, I was referring to options for kids who are not doing well in public schools. Also, to be extra clear, I don’t have a problem with public schools. My wife teaches in a poorer public school and I have 3 kinds in public schools doing well. But one of my kids was struggling really bad. We moved him to a smaller private school and now he’s a straight-A kid taking tough academic classes and he’s doing really well. It changed his life (to the benefit of all of us). It’s totally breaking us financially, but we’re committed to his successful education. Sounds like you’d rather have him fail in a big public school. There are lots of kids like my son. These are the kids I’m referring to and parents who are trying to help their kids get through are struggling to do it. Having a small tax credit to help then to help their kids would seem to be a win/win (because the state would save money as well). Some see it differently.