A hope not fully fulfilled

Education: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wants to encourage opening privately run, state-funded schools, but their effectiveness is mixed.

February 09, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff and Linda Linley | Jonathan D. Rockoff and Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

It was a normal day at Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick, where pupils learned multiplication by manipulating wood blocks, astronomy while drawing with colored markers, and letter sounds by reciting "cat" and "bat."

But don't let the by-the-book Montessori instruction fool you. Monocacy Valley Montessori is one of a kind in Maryland, the state's only charter school, funded by the Frederick County school system but governed by parents.

If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has his way, Maryland will see more such charter schools.

Last week, the governor proposed legislation that would make it easier for parents to start nonreligious, tuition-free charter schools, which he argues will rescue low-income students in poor-performing schools.

While parents nationally have applauded the greater choice offered by charter schools, their effectiveness has proved to be mixed.

Some charter schools do well, but many others do not, researchers said, especially those that aren't rigorously monitored by states and local school systems.

The experts added that charter schools haven't lived up to their promise, especially ones run for profit and by religious groups. They said charter schools have done little to help the neediest students, as Ehrlich hopes they will.

And researchers said they worry that private companies running many charter schools are putting profits ahead of children.

"It's time we admit the emperor is naked," said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, whose studies of charter schools in California and other states have found wide variations in quality and enrollment concentrated among children with the most committed parents.

Charter schools were "supposed to promote competition in the public schools, the schools were going to be more accountable for student outcomes, they were supposed to be more efficient - it just really hasn't panned out."

The parents who labored for three years to get Monocacy Valley Montessori open this school year couldn't be happier, even though they wished they could get more money to buy playground equipment and construct classrooms the way they wanted.

"Philosophically, public education doesn't have it quite right, at least in terms of my daughter," said Norman Quist, a former Frederick County school board president who is a founder of Monocacy Valley Montessori and a member of its governing board. "It ignores the innate curiosity of children."

Md. gets late start

When it comes to charter schools, Maryland is behind the curve, one of 11 states that lack laws making it easy to start charter schools. Since 1991, 2,700 charter schools have sprouted nationwide, serving 685,000 students.

The idea of charter schools dates back at least a decade and grew out of the movement to offer parents dissatisfied with public education a choice for their children's schooling.

Vouchers, which gave parents public money to enroll their children in private schools, are an outgrowth of the same movement.

Both liberals and conservatives - even the head of the American Federation of Teachers, the million-member teachers union - embraced the idea.

In 1991, Minnesota was the first state to enact a law that allowed for the creation of charter schools. Arizona now leads the country with 468.

But Wells, the Columbia professor, said charter schools have not been held accountable for student achievement. She said the schools typically get shut down for financial malfeasance, not for poor instruction.

For example, the Village Academy Charter School in New Haven, Conn., which opened in the fall of 1997, was closed by the state Board of Education two years later because of mismanagement, poor recordkeeping and a disgruntled staff.

In addition, Wells said the schools don't always serve the neediest students. While some charter schools are located in poor neighborhoods, they tend to serve the students who need them least - children with parents who are involved in their education.

Many charter schools, she said, require parents to drive their children and volunteer, leaving the schools for the most affluent students.

"There are real issues about who gets into charter schools and who gets left behind," Wells said.

While Baltimore has 10 "New School Initiative" schools run by nonprofits but publicly funded, Maryland never had a charter school before this school year. Ehrlich's bill would make it simpler to start such a school. Under Ehrlich's proposal, a university or the state's school board could approve a charter school.

Maryland's existing law allows charter schools if a local school board grants permission. In the state, only two school boards - in Frederick and Montgomery counties - have policies for parents who want to create a charter school.

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