The scene has played out repeatedly across Maryland over the past year: Charter school applicants, standing before untested school boards, have asked to open schools with programs not widely available under the public school system.
But only 10 of 29 charter applications have been approved since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed the legislation into law two years ago after a hard-fought battle.
And while Maryland charter school proponents and many parents are eager to see the independent public schools open the coming fall, some warn that the future is bleak for charters unless Maryland strengthens its charter law, which they say makes it too easy for school boards to turn down applications.
Passed in 2003 after years of being rejected by the legislature, the law gives chartering authority only to local school boards. Rejected applicants can appeal to the state board of education. The law also gives school boards control over charter funding and teacher selection.
Pat Foerster, the president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, says school board control is important if charters are to be financed by public money and called public schools. “Without that, charters would quickly become less than a full public school, something less than a program designed to enrich education for all,” she said.
Maryland is often criticized by national charter supporters as a laggard for adopting a charter law more than a decade after the first such schools opened in Minnesota. According to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, there are 3,400 charter schools serving nearly a million students in 40 states.
Jeanne Allen, the president of the charter-friendly group, calls the Maryland charter school law the seventh weakest in the country. She warns against charters there being completely controlled by school boards.
“The school board will continue to dictate all of their policies, how much funding they receive, whether they will have independence from contracts of any sort,” she said. “So what you have is many schools or many people who are girding for some pretty significant challenges.”
In 2001 and 2003—before Maryland passed its statewide charter school law—Joseph Hawkins, the president of the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School, tried unsuccessfully to get the board of the 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district to approve a charter application there.
In an interview, he said that giving only school boards the power to grant charters “is not always a good thing.”
“It limits applicants’ options, especially when they happen to live in a county with a school board that is not especially charter-school-friendly,” he said. He would like to see the state extend chartering authority to other institutions, like universities or the state board of education, or create a new agency to handle the task.
Battle Over Authority
Tricia Johnson, a school board member in the state’s 85,000-student Anne Arundel County district, counters that local school boards should retain oversight of charter schools. “If we are going to take responsibility and be accountable for charter schools, the chartering authority needs to stay with the local school system,” she said.
But she too criticized the current law, saying it needs to be “tweaked” because it lacks clarity.
Ms. Johnson, whose school board recently approved two charters, said she had a “lot of problems” with the current law.
She pointed out that under the law, applicants do not have to have facilities lined up, show how they would handle special education students, address transportation issues, or meet requirements for students with disabilities, among other considerations.
As a result, she said, the Anne Arundel school board initially turned down one of the two charter applicants, though it was part of the nationally known Knowledge Is Power Program or KIPP.
After much deliberation, she said, the board came up with a two-step solution: It has given both applicants, including KIPP, conditional approval, with final contracts to be signed in May only after the schools show the board concrete plans on how they will address the outstanding issues.
But Ms. Johnson expressed concern about giving money to charter schools when regular public schools, she said, are underfunded. “We have a lot of programs [in regular schools] that are working very well, and we have a struggle with the budget,” she said. Although charters absorb some of the public school population, she added, they do not reduce the staffing and other operational expenses of regular schools.
Although Maryland’s charter schools will be under a microscope when they open this fall, that’s of secondary concern to Joni Gardner, the president of the Maryland Charter School Network.
Pointing out that her three children are products of public schools and saying that she believes in public schools, she added that charters can be part of the solution to weaknesses in the public system.
For instance, she said, several public schools in the city of Baltimore are performing below expectations. The district there is also struggling with a financial crisis. “Our children have only one shot at education, and we have no time to waste,” she said.
As it turns out, the 85,000-student Baltimore city district is taking the lead under the new law. Five charter schools have received board approval there. In addition, seven existing public schools will be converted to charters.
One school in Prince George’s County and two each in Anne Arundel and Harford counties have already received conditional approval.
Charter supporters cite parent involvement as the key reason for such schools’ popularity.
That type of involvement is easy to see at Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick, Md., which is the state’s only open charter school. It was approved by the board of the 40,000-student school district in 2001 and opened its doors in 2002.
For instance, parents with specialized work experience routinely talk to students at the K-8 school about their jobs. Before the school opens each year, parents help with painting and getting classrooms ready. They help raise funds, and have even started a prekindergarten class funded entirely by contributions.
Parents of Monocacy Valley Montessori students say the school encourages their children to learn at their own pace using their natural skills in varied activities. In one classroom, for instance, 7th and 8th graders take apart an internal-combustion engine for a physics class. In another, a 4th grader and a 5th grader put together a colorful map of the United States. In yet another class, teaching Native American history, children embroider moccasins.
Maryland’s new charters are already attracting diverse groups of students, including several from outside the public school community, proponents say.
Bobbi MacDonald, the founder of City Neighbors in Baltimore, said around 45 percent of the children at her school will come from private, parochial, and home schools. “Part of the issue is to bring some of those children back from those schools,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Michael E. Steele, a strong supporter of charter schools, agrees. “You have to ask yourself why were people pulling children out of the system and putting them into private schools and parochial schools,” he said in an interview. “Charters are a steppingstone back into public education, and they are a way for those parents who are struggling to meet the demands of a private school education and are seeking a way back into the community.”
Mr. Steele, a Republican and a co-author of the Maryland law, said he agrees there is a need to strengthen the law.
He also calls for creating more chartering authorities, including universities and the state board of education—a proposal made in Gov. Ehrlich’s original charter school bill in 2003. That measure, said Mr. Steele, was whittled down to get it through the Democratic-controlled legislature, which had killed charter school bills in earlier years.
Mr. Steele, who believes local school boards tend to be hostile to charters, added that he would spend some time studying the charter start-ups before considering a bill designed to improve upon the existing law.
He is not the only one hoping for changes.
Mr. Hawkins of the Jaime Escalante Public Charter School said the state needs to make it easier for applicants to find buildings or pay for new ones.
The law creates additional conflict by allowing local school boards to come up with their own formulas for funding charter schools. For instance, Monocacy Valley students get $6,100 per pupil, compared to $8,411 for regular Frederick County students. Last week, the parents of a child at Monocacy Valley filed a lawsuit in the county circuit court challenging that formula.
Charter supporters also point to what they consider another problem: The 2003 law requires that charter teachers be certified.
Leslie Mansfield, a co-founder of the Monocacy Valley Montessori, said the law forces the school to turn down teachers who may not have certification but are otherwise better suited to teach there. “We could end up turning away applicants that have 10 years of private school experience teaching Montessori in Maryland,” she said of the child-centered methods pioneered by the famed Italian educator Maria Montessori. “Qualification and certification do not go hand in hand,” she said.
But Ms. Foerster, of the state affiliate of the National Education Association, said the certification requirement was important to preserve quality and accountability in charter schools.
“We do not believe public school systems should be in a position to develop any kind of reduction of requirement, thus putting kids in a position where they are someone’s guinea pigs,” she said.