ANNAPOLIS – Twelve years after the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota, Maryland may finally be catching up to the trend.
The state’s first charter school, in Frederick County, opened in 2002 — a year before Maryland’s law was passed — but the idea wasn’t applied in other counties until recently.
Since passage — guaranteeing federal funds to chartering groups — applications have been submitted in several school districts, with Baltimore City particularly active at 17 pending requests.
Charter schools are publicly funded institutions run by independent groups, usually parents, sometimes with the help of a private educational service provider. The groups develop their own curriculum and choose their own teachers, but must adhere to a contract with the local school board.
The vigorous effort to establish charters in Baltimore can be attributed to fervent parents lobbying for change.
“Most charter schools come from parents who see a deficiency or gap in what is happening now,” said Jon Schroeder, Education/Evolving’s coordinator, a national non-profit educational reform program based in Minnesota.
In Baltimore, where schools are fraught with fires, teacher vacancies and little more than half of seniors graduate on time, parents are anxious to increase educational opportunity.
“Often parents with economic means leave the city when their children reach school age, and charters may give them a reason to stay,” said Stephanie Simms, who is leading an effort to establish a school in Patterson Park. Simms said she wants a school reflecting the socio-economic, racial and ethnic diversity of Patterson Park.
Although Maryland’s law paved the way for more charter applications, it also threw in what’s proved to be the biggest obstacle to the schools’ creation: Local school boards must approve the projects.
These boards are often unwilling to turn over their students and authority to independent operators.
In addition, some teachers’ unions and public school advocates complain charters steal money, attention and the most involved parents from established public schools, said Schroeder.
“Most opposition isn’t founded on anything but fear and a desire to maintain the status quo,” said Joni Gardner, Maryland Charter School Network president.
In June, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich received a $3.8 million grant to federally fund charter schools.
“When I signed my charter school initiative into law last May, I fulfilled a pledge to give parents more choices within the public school system,” said Ehrlich in a statement released in June.
State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the other State Board of Education members also now say they support charter schools.
“The State Department of Education is very supportive of new charter schools as long as they are educationally and financially sound,” said Bill Reinhard, education department spokesman.
That state support has allowed charter supporters to go over the heads of their local boards when their plans are rejected. The state board ruled in favor of chartering groups in two appeals recently.
The State Board ordered Baltimore City’s board to immediately review the application for City Neighbors Charter School that had long been delayed, and rescinded the Baltimore board’s efforts to cap the number of charter schools at three.
The state board also ordered Prince George’s County’s school board to review the Potomac Charter School’s application, after Deborah Driver, a Fort Washington Realtor, appealed to the state when local board members failed to address the application within the 120 days allotted by Maryland’s law.
This should be a “ringing bell of freedom” for every group of parents and community activists advocating for charter schools, said Bobby McDonald, leading City Neighbors.
But the sound is not resonating everywhere.
Of the districts choosing to return phone calls, Howard, Dorchester, Caroline, Worcester, Calvert, Cecil, Charles, Carroll and Baltimore counties reported no applications.
“In two years since we’ve had the law, I’ve had one call,” said Stephen Guthrie, Carroll County’s assistant superintendent of administration. Because Carroll County schools function well, he said, interest in charters is low. The impetus for charter schools typically depends on test scores, rankings in the state, size and how urban the district is, he said.
More than 92 percent of Carroll seniors graduated on time last year, while just under half of Baltimore City seniors did.
With increased statewide advocacy, local boards may finally be softening.
Chartering groups in Anne Arundel County faced local adversity in the past, but there are now three applications pending, including a math-science school in Northern Anne Arundel and a school run by a foundation in San Francisco called the Knowledge is Power Program.
Three applications also are under consideration in Harford County: Eagles Wings Academy, which plans to focus on dual immersion in technology and Spanish, the Dr. Ben Carson School for high-risk students and the Restoration Alternative Charter School, which deals with truancy and at-risk youth.
“Our school board supports charter schools,” said Kathy Carmello, Harford County charter school coordinator. “The best we can do for charter schools is to judge them, based on merits, timeline and review criteria.”