Photo illustration by Rebecca Lessner.
By Rebecca Lessner
An amended charter school bill will slam the door on Maryland’s chance to follow the 29 other states across America in embarking onto the newly charted plains of cyber-schooling, according to charter school advocates.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan made charter schools a priority last session with his Public Charter School Improvement Act of 2015, which would have made it easier for charter schools to start in Maryland. But the General Assembly made major changes to the bill before passage, including a new, little-known prohibition on 100% online charter schools. It now awaits the governor’s signature.
Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford said “happy is too cheery a word,” to describe his feelings towards the bill as passed, but did not say if the governor would consider a veto.
“We are a little disappointed. We haven’t made a final decision of whether we will go forward with it,” said Rutherford at Hogan’s 100 Days press event.
“If we sign it, going forward, we will be back next year with another charter school bill. I am quite sure of that,” he said.
Online public charter schools open up a middle-ground between public, private and homeschooling. But there are concerns about the quality of education and track record in other states for the evolving programs.
Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, said current charter school law does not specify if learning should take place online or in the classroom.
“It’s a really important option, brick and mortar, one size fits all, doesn’t work for all children,” said. “Maryland eliminating the potential for that innovation to flourish here would really be a step backwards.”
Virtual charter schooling is a relatively new concept, but it is a contributing factor in why neighboring states surpass Maryland in a charter school education report card compiled by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Maryland ranks last out of the 42 states and the District of Columbia who have enacted public charter school laws. Pennsylvania holds 16 public cyber charter schools and ranks 25th; and the District of Columbia holding one public-virtual charter school ranks 9th.
However, these jurisdictions have charter laws dating back to the late 1990s. Maryland’s charter-school law was only enacted in 2003.
Online learning differs across jurisdictions.
In Pennsylvania for example, 21st Century Cyber Charter School (21CCCs) leases Macbook computers, printers, scanner and textbooks for $1 per year, and boasts “the best academic track record of any cyber charter school in the state, including average 2014 SAT scores in the top 10% of all Pennsylvania public schools.”
Problems in Pennsylvania?
However, the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) that represents public school educators, believes Pennsylvania is a glaring example of why cyber charter schools are failing and is thrilled with the General Assembly’s position, said Sean Johnson, assistant executive director of MSEA’s Center for Public Affairs.
“They cover a very small, I think half of 1%, of public school students in the state of Pennsylvania, but those schools make up about 33% of the lowest performing schools in the state,” said Johnson, referring to an Op-Ed piece in Pennlive.
The study was based on data collected by 11 of the state’s cyber charter schools, which enroll roughly half of the cyber charter school population in Pennsylvania.
Johnson believes the data shows a quality of education that is “quite suspect.”
“I’m glad Maryland has taken this step to not go down this experiment with cyber charters,” said Johnson.
Cyber schools work best for independent learners
Jonathan Cetel, executive director of Pennsylvania Can, finds the track record of virtual charter schools in Pennsylvania to be “mixed,” working for independent learners but not necessarily for students who need more direction.
The 16 different cyber schools, reaching 30,000 students spread out across Pennsylvania, are ideal for homeschoolers looking for a more robust curriculum, for students who travel frequently, or for students who wish to leave schools after being bullied.
“It’s not so much the parents are being drawn to cyber schools, but they’re being pushed by the inability of traditional public schools to meet their needs,” said Cetel.
Maryland’s current online learning model
However, Betty Weller, president of MSEA, believes public schools could be just as innovative as charter schools if given the opportunity.
“They (charter schools) are touted as being beds of innovation and things like that, but I think that if you give any public school the kinds of resources that some charter schools might have, they could be beds of innovation too,” said Weller.
Maryland piloted its first online classes in 2003 through the Maryland Virtual School (MVS), which is directed by MSDE. These classes are used in “blended” schools, where students take some classes online and some in the physical-classroom and reach more than 4,000 students in seven school systems.
Courses teaching more than 80% of a class online must be approved by MSDE. Courses delivering less than 80% online do not need such approval.
Future of the bill
Jason Botel, executive director of Maryland Can, an advocacy group for education reform, said the amended bill still holds some improvements to Maryland’s charter law, which will affect the 47 charter schools across Maryland, with an estimated 18,000 students in attendance.
The governor should sign the bill, he said, because it is a first step that still accomplishes more flexibility in teacher certification, more transparency in local school funding and prioritized enrollment for disadvantaged children.
However Kerwin disagrees, feeling that if this bill passes charter schools will lose their seat at the legislative table.
“I honestly don’t think this issue in particular will have another chance if we allow this to pass now,” said Kerwin. “They’ll say ‘oh we tackled that, we did charters, we’re done.’”