Opinion: Kirwan Commission disregards achievements of charter schools

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As we begin national School Choice Week, here’s an open letter to Brit Kirwan, chair of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which completed its preliminary report on Friday with no mention of charter schools. 

Dear Chairman Kirwan,

With the utmost respect for your tenure as an educator and community leader, I write this message because of the failure of the commission you chair to address charter schools after personally testifying before the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.

Your commission is silent about charter schools in your formulas and plans for world-class schools. Yet Marylanders know public models are already available in the form of 4- and 5-star public charter schools. In fact, of the six public charter schools in Maryland to receive 4 and 5 stars from the Maryland State Department of Education last month, four were the K-12 schools I’m proud to serve as community partnerships director of the Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation (CLF) STEM/STEAM academies.

To follow the process so closely and receive no acknowledgment is as if the special interests’ groups and status quo camps are saying to us: “We know you’re successful. We know you’re doing it for less. And that’s become a problem for us.”

The problem for Maryland and for me is that you’re listening to that message. Of course, they don’t want “change” and debates will stagnate for another decade on how to solve last decade’s failures.

Dr. Kirwan, despite crippling charter economics in Maryland, Chesapeake Lighthouse schools find investing in its local communities worthwhile. (CLF debt is currently $70 million. Taxpayer debt for our schools is $0.00) Please listen to that economic investment.

Why is there no “charter school” vocabulary in the Kirwan recommendations? Why no mention of CLF’s world-class model, $0 tax-dollar facilities already serving thousands of Maryland K-12 families as a viable, current solution towards your commission’s goals?

Formulas are outdated

Please acknowledge our parents, teachers and students who have already helped to solve the inequality of public education in Maryland. Together, we will undoubtedly affect generations of Maryland’s families. We need your support. The Kirwan Commission needs to include public charter schools in the equitable distribution of funding. The 2002 Thornton formulas are outdated. Everyone knows that.

The bigger picture is how the commission must update the Thornton model—written before our Maryland public charters existed. Leaving out your most successful public options is counter to your mission.

Funding equity for public schools is a basic goal of the Kirwan Commission. Charters do not “take” from traditional schools. The formulas continue to not account for charters while the general public thinks otherwise. The only difference between our charters and Maryland traditional schools is we traditionally perform better, for less money.

Let’s include viable, world-class public charter schools in an equitable manner. We’ve proven our model, an option unavailable under Thornton 16 years ago. We are forced to spend 20% of our per-pupil budget on facilities, yet we meet and exceed local academic standards, all while traditional public schools are handed keys to their buildings and deliver mixed results.

Our students’ scores that bridge the achievement gap, our high attendance rates, and our 100% graduation and college acceptance rates speak for themselves. These are world-class public results due to hard work, Dr. Kirwan. We can do more, together.

More equity in other states

Please make recommendations based on examples from jurisdictions that have provided per-pupil funding as a remedy. For example, sixteen jurisdictions are providing a per-pupil facilities allowance to charter schools: Arizona; California; Colorado; Florida; Georgia; Idaho; Indiana; Massachusetts; Minnesota; New Mexico; New York; Ohio; Pennsylvania; Tennessee; Utah; and Washington, D.C. Of these 16 jurisdictions, five provide funding of more than $1,000 per pupil (Arizona; Georgia; Minnesota; New York; and Washington, D.C.), four provide funding of between $351 and $999 per pupil (California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and New Mexico), and six provide funding of less than $350 per pupil (Colorado, Idaho, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Utah). The per-pupil amount in Florida is still being determined.

Please recommend that more Free and Reduced Meal Students (FARMS) can have access to charter schools. Charters are lottery based and these most-needy families must have transportation provided to and from public charter schools in Maryland. How else will they realistically attend our schools? It is unreasonable to not provide a free form of transport to our most needy families by either a bus voucher or a physical bus.

In closing, know that all Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation schools are minority-majority institutions. We offer the public a world-class choice in public education. We are equal opportunity. ZIP codes and income brackets don’t define our student population, We hire union teachers and abide by the same local school board rules. This is a public charter in Maryland.  We are 100% public schools.

Don’t ignore us because of politics. Maryland’s future innovators need us. That’s our motive. In honor of School Choice week, now, the lighthouse light is brightened more in Maryland. We’re here to help.

Warmest regards,

Mark Sutherland

Community Partnerships Director

Chesapeake Lighthouse Foundation

Editor’s Note: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks Maryland 45th among the states for its charter school law, set up and funding. Massachusetts, studied by the Kirwan Commission as a model for education reform, ranks 13th.