ANNAPOLIS – The Jaime Escalante Charter School has motivated teachers and involved parents, a strong mission and needy students. But it doesn’t exist, and its supporters wonder if it ever will.
Proposed laws to help such schools become real are before the General Assembly for the fourth time, but some charter school hopefuls can’t bear to pay attention.
“I’ve decided not to even think about it,” said Joe Hawkins, co-chairman of the Jaime Escalante board. “I don’t feel like being disappointed again. You get so tired of going down to Annapolis. Nothing happens.”
The charter school movement that has swept 36 states and the District of Columbia has stalled repeatedly in Maryland. Technically, counties already have the authority to turn over public school money to private groups to start schools, giving them broad flexibility in hiring teachers, designing curriculum and setting policies.
In practice, no charter schools have opened in Maryland. But there are signs that things are changing: The first application was tentatively approved last week, after what supporters describe as months of struggle.
The problem, organizers said, is that without a state law schools can’t apply for federal or private money for daunting startup costs. And local policies are too restrictive, some say, stifling innovation by tying small independent schools to regulations designed for monstrous public institutions.
A state law could break many of the barriers that startup charter schools face, enabling them to tap into $200 million in federal grants, loosening restrictions and bypassing resistant local school boards.
But, as in past years, legislators facing different versions of charter school bills disagree on how to structure the schools.
“We’re stuck in legislative quicksand and we can’t get out,” said Delegate John R. Leopold R-Anne Arundel, sponsor of a bill in the House.
At the local level, proposals for new schools struggle in their own kind of quicksand while they await a state law to pull them out.
Only two of 24 counties – Frederick and Montgomery – have charter school policies.
Last week, applicants in both districts faced votes by their local school boards. One failed for the second time, another became the first in the state to succeed.
Both have been frustrated by roadblocks and regulations they say a flexible state law could eliminate.
In Montgomery County, the Jaime Escalante group has tried for more than three years to get an application past the school board. Last week, their application was denied again.
Their school would require the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum in a neighborhood where the county’s widening achievement gap is worst. All students would take the same classes regardless of their test scores or prior performance. Struggling students could attend year-round if needed.
The school board said the proposal was not unique enough when it denied the application. The board also rejected various proposals for facilities and worried the school system would have to provide start-up money, even after the charter group got an outside grant.
Hawkins, the board president, was not surprised at the latest rejection. A state law would ease the funding problems that bother the board. But Hawkins isn’t sure whether his group will try again.
“You just sort of get worn out,” he said. “We’re going to have to do a lot of soul searching to want to apply again.”
In nearby Frederick County, parents met with greater success after months of compromise and creative budgeting. They were surprised and relieved last week when the school board unanimously approved the state’s first charter school.
“Seven hands went up,” said parent Phil Mansfield. “We went out and had margaritas.”
The group of about 50 families envisions a cozy Montessori elementary school, where their children can continue in a program many started as preschoolers, while avoiding overcrowding and redistricting.
One-size-fits-all regulations had stifled their progress. When the school board told them they must adhere to public school regulations, it wrecked their budget and skewed their vision.
They had to plan for the county average of $46,000 per teacher. If the teachers they actually hire earn less on the county pay scale, they have to give the extra money back. They wanted to hire teachers with Montessori training, even if they lack a state teaching certificate.
Out of the question, the school board said.
“We’re so tied to the public school system it makes it virtually impossible,” said parent Leslie Mansfield. “We’re trying to fit a small peg into a large hole and make the thing hold together.”
The county will give them money for each student, but no capital funding for rent, furniture or other startup costs. Parents in the group have been collecting cast-off tables and file cabinets, combing through county warehouses and negotiating with realtors to set up a school on a shoestring.
“We’re going to have to live up to this budget and it’s not going to be easy,” Phil Mansfield said. Start-up costs will probably mean no field trips, no library, no playground equipment. “Those things are going to have to wait,” he said.
Even a minimal state law would enable them to apply for grants. A flexible state law would give them more autonomy over spending, hiring and curriculum.
Leslie Mansfield remembers a stronger grassroots push for the law last year. She tried recently to start some discussion on a charter school web site that had been active a year ago. She got one response. She wonders where everybody went.
“I think people are disillusioned,” she said. “Maybe everybody’s kids grew up.”
It’s easy for grassroots voices to get lost, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform.
“Last year, a lot of people spent a lot of time in Annapolis and it was ignored,” she said.
Besides, the bills are so weak they are hardly worth fighting for, and it is better to pass no law than a bad one, Allen said. It might be better just to wait for turnover in the Legislature next year than to fight for an inadequate law now, she said.
Meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing at the Maryland Charter School Network, where president Joni Gardner fields questions from parents wondering where the charter schools are.
She tells them Maryland still doesn’t have any.
“They say, `What do you mean there’s no charter schools?'” Gardner said. “We’ve got people looking to move to D.C. or move out of the state, because it is just not happening in Maryland.”