Speak Out!

April 23, 2006

LAST WEEK'S ISSUE:Anne Arundel County school officials have removed the top two administrators of Chesapeake Science Point Charter School in Hanover, reassigned three teachers and completed an investigation of management and operating procedures.

Some say Chesapeake's stumbles illustrate the pitfalls of starting a charter school from scratch and might point to the need for changes in state law and more scrutiny of applications. Charter school advocates say the situation points to the need for greater autonomy, public funding of building needs and better guidance for those starting charters. At least one expert has said it typically takes time for charter schools to get on their feet.

Are changes needed in the way Maryland authorizes and deals with charter schools. If so, what kinds of changes?

More funding, autonomy needed

As a co-founder of a public charter school in Frederick, I see a definite need for changes in the charter school process. Our school opened prior to the passage of the Maryland Public Charter School Act of 2003, in part because Maryland's local boards of education had the authority all along to establish charter schools, just as they had the authority to establish all other public schools in their respective districts. But only Frederick had gone forward with approval of a charter school by 2002.

Since the passage of the charter school legislation, over a dozen schools have been authorized. Clearly this law was needed to ensure that local districts would create the process for applications to be received and approved. But improvements are needed.

In most districts the funding provided to a charter school is the same amount that other schools are spending to maintain an existing program, less all of the funds that cover the cost of the centralized functions.

Some charter schools, like ours, do not receive transportation services or even the per-pupil share of that funding category. From the available funds, we had to cover all of our start-up costs, including the purchase of all instructional materials and furnishings. We have had to rent space, which costs over $250,000 per year. No other type of public school is faced with this financial burden.

It is no wonder that charter schools may be in the red initially. These schools, ours included, are already doing more on less than their traditional counterparts.

Parents are pitching in more than you might imagine. At our school, parents serve as librarians and willingly do a great deal of custodial work, as well as building and grounds maintenance. Major fundraising has unfortunately become a critical and time-consuming aspect of our lives.

Also, blanket waivers of district policies and regulations need to be standard practice. Charter school operators should be allowed to determine the policies, within the parameters of the law, that serve their student population best. The current waiver process is inefficient and ineffective.

Finally, charter schools deal with the same teacher shortage as every other school. We could attract a broader applicant pool if Montessori-certified teachers from the private sector were offered an alternative certification path. These individuals are highly educated, qualified and experienced, yet may not be "certified" to teach in a public school. This is a loss to the public school system.

Without flexibility and autonomy for charter schools, you are merely creating a tier of under-funded magnet schools.

Leslie Mansfield Frederick

Authorization process is flawed

Charter schools are a beacon of hope in a public school system that was designed 100 years ago, a system now in the midst of transformation. The authorization process in Maryland has one main flaw: the authorizer of a new charter school is the school board in each jurisdiction. Someone once said this is like going to the local McDonald's and asking for permission to start a Burger King in the parking lot.

The state should amend the charter school law to allow for multiple authorizers, such as universities and other institutions that care about learning and children. This change would bring about a strong charter school movement, and break down school boards' misconception that public dollars for public education belong to the existing system. In fact, that money has never belonged to anyone but the students of Maryland.

The money, power and responsibility for educating children is now shared with those brave enough to put together an innovative plan and go through the difficult authorizing process. Running a charter school is like running a business, using fiscally sound practices and counting profit student achievement rather than dollars. If this measure were used in Maryland, many of our failing schools would have been closed 30 years ago.

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