State board lifts limit on charter schools

Ruling means 10 rather than 3 can be opened in Baltimore by 2008

October 13, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Charter school advocates in Baltimore won a victory yesterday in a state board decision that encourages the proliferation of the new schools across the city in the next few years.

The state Board of Education lifted a cap on the number of new charter schools that can open in the city in the next three years, a decision that advocates said was a signal to local school boards not to try to drag their feet in allowing new charter schools to open.

"It indicates the state board is supportive of charter schools and giving charter schools a chance in the state," said Joni Gardner, president of the Maryland Charter School Network.

A charter school is a publicly funded school allowed to operate independently. Under a state law passed two years ago, local school boards approve the new schools, although charter schools can appeal decisions to the state Board of Education.

But some local school systems, such as Baltimore's, have moved slowly to approve the schools. The city school board, in imposing the cap last spring, said it was afraid that it might incur additional costs at a time when a spending has been restricted by a $58 million deficit.

When a new charter school is approved, the school board must carve out a certain per-pupil allowance from its own budget for each city student at the charter school.

Ten groups have filed applications to open new charter schools next spring. Under the cap, only three of the 10 could have opened by 2008. Many charter school advocates see charters as a way to keep middle-class families in the city and stabilize neighborhoods.

"I think it is a ringing bell of freedom for every grass-roots group of parents, teachers and community leaders who want to participate in improving public education," said Bobbi MacDonald, founder of City Neighbors Charter School, one of the 10 applicants.

The state board's decision stems from an application filed last winter by the City Neighbors Charter School, a group of Northeast Baltimore parents who want to open a charter school next fall.

Under state law, City Neighbors argued, the school system was supposed to decide 120 days after the group filed its application. But when a decision was delayed, City Neighbors appealed to the state and asked that the cap be eliminated.

In its decision, the state board said the Maryland charter school law doesn't set a limit on the charters and that "each application must be considered on its own merit without regard to other applications."

Stephanie Simms, chairwoman of the Patterson Park Public Charter School - a school that doesn't exist yet but hopes to be approved this fall - said having the cap removed will allow the different charter groups to share information more freely rather than feel they have to compete with one another. Simms said she was no longer concerned that sharing information with another charter school group might give that group an advantage that would help their school get approved.

"It is great news for the people who live in the city and who felt they needed another public school option in their neighborhood," Simms said.

"We are disappointed in the decision," said Patricia Welch, chairwoman of the city school board, in a statement during last night's board meeting. "We have not had the opportunity to read the entire ruling, but we will discuss it and review options for the [city school] commissioners and the system."

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