As the new school year begins, educators and elected officials across the state will be looking closely at the performance of the 14 new charter schools that opened this fall. In 2003, Maryland joined 39 other states that had approved charter school legislation.
Since the first state, Minnesota, gave its approval in 1991, charter schools have been a way for parents, teachers, citizen groups and institutions of higher education to operate a public school. As originally intended, these community-based schools are free of the regulation and bureaucratic requirements of traditional schools and have the autonomy to try innovative approaches to learning.
Today, however, a trend is emerging in which new charter schools are more likely to be part of a larger for-profit operation, which raises doubts as to whether they can maintain their independence and continue to be the incubators of innovation they were designed to be.
Nationally, there are more than 3,400 charter schools involving about 750,000 students. Praised by conservatives for offering a free-market alternative to the traditional public school, the movement got a boost in 2001 when Congress enacted President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. For schools that continually fail to demonstrate yearly progress, the law requires that a restructuring plan be developed.
One of five recommended alternatives is to reopen as a charter school. In The New York Times magazine, Jonathan Kozol, a former teacher and prominent author of a number of books on education in America, said, "NCLB's driving motive is to highlight failure in inner-city schools as dramatically as possible in order to create a groundswell for ... privatization schemes." It should be noted that most charter schools are in urban areas. Twelve of Maryland's 14 charter schools are in Baltimore.
There has been an increase in the number of charter schools in the past five years, more noticeably in the percentage of charter schools being managed by for-profit companies.
Most of the nonprofit groups running a school cite major difficulties such as recruiting good teachers, maintaining facilities, developing curriculum, etc., as their chief reason for turning to an outside company.
Most state laws, including Maryland's, do not prohibit nonprofit groups from contracting with a private company.
In April, Arizona State University published a study on the growth of "education management organizations," or EMOs - a term coined by Wall Street analysts to describe for-profit enterprises that receive public money to manage schools. The study reported that 22 percent of all charter schools are managed by EMOs, compared with 10 percent in 2002, and that EMOs account for 31 percent of all charter school students.
For-profit advocates argue that hiring private companies leads to greater efficiencies in the operation of charter schools, which means more money for teaching and learning. Opponents contend that private companies are more interested in profits than teaching and learning. They fear private companies will increase class sizes and hire cheaper personnel. As the Arizona State study pointed out, firms that run 10 or more schools now dominate the industry.
Their business model focuses on the primary grades, and they typically have larger-than-average class sizes - all aimed at turning a profit, because, like public schools, charter schools receive their funding based on the number of students.
According to the study, this is highly suspect as an educationally valid approach to public education. Opponents also argue that company-run schools have not improved performance.
For example, 56 percent of the for-profit run schools in Ohio were in "watch" or "emergency" status, the two lowest categories for judging academic performance, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported last month.
The foundation of the charter school movement is school-based decision-making and direct accountability to those served. A study of schools in Michigan showed that the extensive involvement of EMOs threatens the concept of autonomy, flexibility and site-based management, which is at the core of the charter concept.
Of the 14 new charter schools in Maryland, only one - Patterson Park School in Baltimore - is aligned with a private vendor. This could change with the newly released report of a commission chaired by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele that recommends further expansion of the state's charter schools law.
Whether charter schools will continue to grow as for-profit ownership expands remains to be seen. But what we don't want to see happen in Maryland is what recently was reported in one Florida newspaper: privately run charter schools known as McCharters offering standard curriculum where innovation is no longer a focus. In other words, we don't want to replace one unresponsive bureaucratic structure with another, especially one lacking in public accountability.
James W. Campbell, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1978 to 2002, serves on the Baltimore school board and works at the Johns Hopkins University.