Helping charter schools

July 05, 2005

IN APPROVING contracts for the city's first four official charter schools last week, Baltimore's school board is allowing to go forward some promising new approaches to educating city schoolchildren. In a system still struggling to improve, innovations are welcome. During the next several weeks, the school board is expected to approve eight more charter schools, including seven existing innovative schools that are converting to charters.

Yet while school officials reached a compromise with charter school operators about funding for this year, future funds are uncertain. City school officials should keep working with charter schools to come up with a stable funding formula that would help give these schools - and their students - the opportunity to flourish.

While the evidence on academic achievement in charter schools is mixed, they certainly can help some students who need different educational approaches, and they are generally less bogged down in rules and regulations. But like all schools, they need money to operate, and Maryland requires would-be charters to seek approval and then negotiate per pupil funding with local school boards.

In Baltimore, five new schools and seven existing schools have been seeking charter status. The dozen schools have been started mostly by community groups, and many of them use themes, such as social justice, as a focus for teaching and learning. They will also have secure funding for at least a year under a compromise agreement that city school officials recently reached with charter school operators.

Under the agreement, the school system will pay $5,379 per pupil and provide an additional $849 in employee benefits per pupil. That's an improvement over an earlier offer by the school system that would have provided only $5,011 per pupil and required charter operators to pay for benefits. When negotiations broke down over that offer, two charter applicants took their case to the Maryland State Board of Education, which ruled that local districts must offer charter schools funding that is "commensurate" with what they give other public schools in their jurisdiction.

While city school officials are still challenging the state board's ruling, they settled on the one-year compromise agreement that has been accepted by several charter schools. Now that the board has officially approved the first four charters, school system officials should again put their heads together with charter operators - perhaps with more guidance from the state - to ensure maximum flexibility as well as adequate and stable funding for all 12 of the city's innovative charter schools.

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