ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s public charter schools feel stifled under current state laws that keep them under the authorization and governance of local school boards, but the creation of separate charter school boards could cost taxpayers and students much more.
Charter schools were poised to be a hot topic during this legislative session from the beginning. A week before his inauguration, Gov. Larry Hogan appointed former Delegate Keiffer Mitchell, a noted Baltimore Democrat, as a special adviser to oversee some of his legislative initiatives, including the expansion of charter schools.
“It’s like McDonald’s seeking to get approval from Burger King to open a new restaurant,” said Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform, a national organization that supports freedom of choice in education, specifically with charter schools.
But Brad Young, president of the Board of Education of Frederick County, home to three public charter schools, said he thinks all public schools, charter or otherwise, should be governed by one body.
“It’s counterproductive to set up a second system that would be run totally separate from the current school system,” Young said. “What charter schools prove is that students learn in different ways, and it’s important to provide different options to students. But the duplication of services would force admin costs up and have implications that would cost taxpayers more or take money out of the classroom.”
At a ground-breaking event on Wednesday, the co-founders of Green Street Academy, a public charter school in Baltimore, touted a “21st century approach to learning.”
With gardens, chicken coops and fish farms as learning spaces in an urban environment, the Academy equips students with the skills to be successful in modern ways, said David Warnock, co-founder of the Green Street Academy and co-chair of the board of trustees. They also have a new partnership with the U.S. Forest Service’s Baltimore Field Station.
“This generation does not respond to institution-led education,” Warnock said, noting the heavy dependence of today’s students on technology and social media. “We need to hook ‘em, capture their imagination and develop their love of learning.”
Green Street Academy received a $14 million loan from Bank of America, part of the $23 million in total funds raised so far to move into a larger, “green” building to open in September, Warnock said. The renovated building will allow 425 more students to attend the academy next school year, nearly a 100 percent increase. The 2.5-mile move will also allow 60 percent of students to walk to school, instead of the 5 percent that are able to work in the current location.
A study released on Tuesday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Maryland’s charter school laws the lowest in the nation for the second year in a row. Eight states do not have charter school laws and were not ranked.
“We find that more often than not local school boards aren’t supportive of charters, and sometimes they’re downright hostile,” said Todd Ziebarth, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools senior vice president for state advocacy and support. “They think they’re losing the money that’s attached to those students. But at the end of the day, if public schools and charter schools are cooperating, it’s better for a community. The intent is long term. It’s an economic boost to the community, not a drain.”
“There’s so much emphasis and energy put on the inputs that overshadow the ways charter schools create great outcomes,” she said.
But a panel presentation by the Maryland State Department of Education to the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Jan. 22 raised some questions on the success of charter schools in Maryland.
Numbers in the department of education’s report reflecting success rates for charter schools excluded statistics from 11 Maryland charter schools that had been shut down.
The first and only bill the legislature has seen thus far on the topic this year calls for the establishment of a public charter school program in Frederick County governed by an independent charter school board, with members elected by the county council. Charter school teachers in Frederick County would also be exempt from performance evaluation criteria determined by the state.
It was proposed and presented by Secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Kelly Schulz, before she resigned her seat as a Republican delegate from Frederick and Carroll.
The bill has had little traction since it was first presented to the House Ways and Means Committee, said Vice Chairman Frank S. Turner, D-Howard, but with so many new members, it’s hard to know which way the committee will lean.
Turner, however, has his mind made up.
“Any time we use money for charter schools — whether direct or indirect — that’s less money that goes to public schools,” he said. “My feeling is that what we need to do is strengthen the public school system.”