Into charter territory

February 24, 2003

WITH THE enthusiastic backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., charter school legislation stands the best chance in five years to win General Assembly approval. If a charter bill overcomes the resistance of teacher unions and school boards, Maryland would become the 41st state to allow taxpayer-funded schools that are managed independently of school district bureaucracy. And there's a bonus: The new schools would be eligible for a share of $200 million in federal aid for charter startups.

Done right, charters offer flexibility and freedom from onerous regulation. They represent a choice previously unavailable to inner-city parents whose children are trapped in failing schools. They pose healthy competition to other public schools.

But they also must be accountable to the taxpayers who are paying their bills. The trick is striking a balance between autonomy and accountability.

Charters aren't for the faint-hearted. They're difficult to organize and sustain; a majority, according to a recent survey, experience financial difficulties in their first years. Many have folded. Many, too, have been shut down for poor management.

Several Baltimore schools operate on charter principles, and their problems and successes are instructive. The oldest is the Stadium School, founded by a group of Waverly parents in 1994. In its early years, the Stadium School met with hostility at North Avenue headquarters because it was largely outside the control of the bureaucracy.

The Midtown Academy in Bolton Hill has succeeded in part because parents raise thousands of dollars a year to supplement meager state and city operating funds. In an East Baltimore neighborhood of striking poverty, City Springs Elementary has become a national model with a curriculum installed by a nonprofit group. And Coppin State College is turning around Rosemont Elementary, the only public school in Maryland run by a college.

All of these combinations - converted public schools, schools founded by parents or other private groups, schools operated by colleges - are possible statewide under the governor's charter bill. The bill gives charter schools the freedom to set policy and select curriculum, though they must be tuition-free and nonsectarian, employ state-qualified teachers, and be adequately funded and nondiscriminatory in admissions. Charter schools cannot be segregation academies or home schools.

Under the bill, local school boards could authorize charters, but not exclusively. The state Board of Education, for example, might want to establish a separate charter board. This makes sense. As the Stadium School case demonstrates, public boards and bureaucrats can't resist the urge to control. They are better off channeling competitive energy into the improvement of their own schools.

Teacher unions will resist a feature in the governor's bill that allows charter teachers to bargain collectively but bars them from membership in any other bargaining unit. This is healthy, too. Charters are independently managed. Their teachers work under rules and conditions that are different from those of the rest of the public systems. Indeed, flexibility (longer school days, for example) and experimentation are at the heart of the charter school mission. Teachers who fear them need not apply.

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