Laslo Boyd: Does Maryland Need a New Charter School Law?

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By: Laslo Boyd

The Hogan Administration has introduced legislation to revise the 2003 law that currently governs the establishment and operation of charter schools in Maryland.   That earlier law was championed by the last Republican governor of the State, Bob Ehrlich, and reflects a widespread view in the party that there should be more options for parents and students than just traditional public schools. 

Committees in both the House of Delegates and the Senate recently held hearings on the Administration bill. Those hearings failed to answer many of the questions raised by legislators and left observers scratching their heads about the Administration’s intent. 

The bill, as currently drafted, reads as if someone had cut and pasted from a handout for charter schools distributed at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association.  Clearly the bill’s drafters did not involve anyone at the Maryland State Department of Education in preparing the legislation.

As legislators consider the bill, there are two questions that need to be addressed.  The first is to determine what the problem is that the proposed legislation is intended to correct.  Second, members of the General Assembly will need to assess what impact a new law would have on the whole of public education in Maryland.

In a recent Sun op/ed, former State School Superintendent David Hornbeck outlined the case against any further expansion of charter schools. 

Hornbeck’s perspective is also informed by having served as Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District. 

With a state law that makes charters relatively easy to establish and which provides very generous funding, the current debate in Pennsylvania is an reverse image of the one in Maryland.  A newly elected Democratic Governor, facing Republican control in both houses of the State Legislature, is attempting to put the brakes on charter expansion there and revise the funding formula for charters. 

To underscore the contrast between Pennsylvania and Maryland, opponents of the Hogan legislation arranged for Bill Hite, the current Philadelphia superintendent and former head of the Prince George’s Schools, to testify against the proposed bill in the Maryland General Assembly. 

On the other hand, you can certainly make the case that, after 12 years, the time has come to review how the current Maryland law is working.  Should it be easier to establish charter schools?   As the system now works, the chartering authority in each jurisdiction is the local school board.  A number of them have been very opposed to charters with the result that there are at present a total of 51 in Maryland, of which 32 are in Baltimore City.

The Hogan bill would also grant to the State Board of Education chartering authority.  It does seem an odd choice for an administration that stresses local control in many areas to be so ready to override the preferences of local boards in this case.  There may be an alternative, a middle ground, on this issue, but it remains to be seen if the Administration and the Legislature can find it.

Another area of controversy is less likely to be successfully resolved.  The bill provides that charter school employees do not have to belong to the bargaining unit of the local school system and do not in fact have to be public employees.  It’s hard to see that provision making it through the Democratically controlled legislature.

More likely to be viewed positively is the idea that charter schools could establish geographic areas from which student may enroll.  The current law allows students from the entire district to compete for the slots in each charter school.  The challenge will be to ensure that charter schools don’t draw those boundaries in such a way as to skim students with the greatest potential for success and leave the others behind.

And then there is the issue of funding.  The current law is written in vague language, stating that the local board must disburse funds to charter schools “commensurate” with those give to other public schools.  Establishing more specificity on the funding of charter schools seems reasonable, but determining the actual policy is fraught with challenges.

In Philadelphia, every student who moves from a regular public school to a charter school “takes” the calculated per student support with her or him.  The problem is that reducing the student population does not automatically reduce the expenses or overhead that the school continues to bear.   The impact on the Philadelphia public school has been a drain of $727 million in the current school year.

The Administration Bill would set the figure to be transferred at 98% of the average per student support.  The hearing did not clarify whether that amount included the extra dollars included for special education or other costs above the base formula. 

As David Hornbeck’s article demonstrates, creating more charter schools undermines support for the rest of the public school system.  Frustration with the shortcomings of public schools and the desire of parents to find alternatives for their children have contributed to the growth of charter schools in many areas.  However, research has shown a fairly consistent pattern nationally: about one third of charters outperform public school; about a third are more or less equivalent; and about a third are less effective. 

Charters are clearly not a “silver bullet” for the problems of schools in America.  In fact, we do know many of the factors that lead to education success, including early childhood education, well qualified teachers, principals with strong leadership skills, classes that are not too large and do have the necessary educational resources, and parental involvement and support.  Our failure to ensure that every school has access to those resources is the real problem.

The best case for charters is that they can be laboratories for educational experimentation, with best practices that can be applied more broadly.  To the extent that charters end up undercutting public education rather that strengthening it, any policy change in Maryland would be misguided.

The General Assembly does not have a lot of time left this session to sort out these issues.  A bill that makes minor adjustments and leads to a more thoughtful discussion about how to proceed in the future would be the best outcome for this year’s charter school proposal.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.