The court — Public school systems must provide as much money per pupil to charter school operators as they spend on regular public schools, the state Court of Special Appeals ruled yesterday, siding with the state in a dispute with Baltimore.
The court - the second-highest in the state - said the funding must be in cash rather than in-kind services. Baltimore now spends the equivalent of about $11,000 per child in its regular public schools. Charter schools in the city receive $5,859 per child in cash and the rest in services that the school system provides, such as special education and food.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently under contracts with local school boards or regulating agencies. Nationwide, more than 3,000 charter schools have opened since the movement began in the early 1990s. Twenty-four charters are now operating in Maryland - 17 of them in Baltimore - after enabling legislation passed in 2003.
The case grew out of a May 2005 decision by the State Board of Education involving two Baltimore charters - City Neighbors Charter School and Patterson Park Public Charter School. Both complained that the funding formula limited their ability to choose how to provide various services.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday's ruling affirmed "in a resounding way, the state board's decision. It didn't accept the city board's argument that charters would receive more money than other schools."
The practical effect of the ruling will depend on whether the city school board decides to appeal, she said.
The city school board chairman, Brian D. Morris, said members would be meeting with the board's attorney on Tuesday to "fully understand the implications of the ruling."
Meanwhile, Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said, "We trust the school system will follow the court's order."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a proponent of charter schools, hailed the ruling, saying it would prevent local boards from putting barriers in the way of charter schools. He said that will mean more charters in places such as Baltimore and better funding for those that already exist.
Equal funding throughout a school system, the court ruled, is consistent with the legislation authorizing charter schools' and lawmakers' "stated goal of establishing `innovative learning opportunities and creative education approaches' as alternatives to traditional public schools."
In ruling out in-kind services, the court said if a local board "could choose which of its centralized services each charter school will have to accept, in lieu of cash disbursements, such innovation and creativity may be inhibited," the court said.
But the court said charters "are not getting something for nothing" in the ruling because they will be responsible for providing services or reimbursing the school system for them.
Besides ordering equal funding, the state board specified that charter schools could control their own funds, with a key exception. The board required the two charter schools to return 2 percent of their funding to the system for administrative services.
Will DuBois, an attorney representing City Neighbors Public Charter School in Northeast Baltimore, said, "We look forward to continuing in our relationship with the city school system with this clear statement from the court that the law requires equitable funding among different types of public schools and that the charter schools must have the flexibility to meet their educational missions."
The president of Patterson Park's board, Melanie Hood-Wilson, said the court's ruling is "extremely fair" and will allow charter schools to fulfill their mission of innovative teaching.
"The [in-kind] services allow us to exist and operate, but they keep us in the same patterns and procedures that have been in place forever," she said. "The money allows us to innovate and to reach students in ways that are different, which is the whole purpose of charter schools."
But Matthew Hornbeck, principal at Hampstead Hill Academy in Baltimore - which converted to charter school status in 2005 - sympathized with the city's complaint that the state board decision would unduly favor charter schools, adding that his school had operated successfully under the city board's current funding formula.
"If everyone were to get more money, then I would be happy to get it," Hornbeck said. "But to give my school more than the city schools around me wouldn't be fair. ... Robbing Peter to pay Paul doesn't make sense."
He said the court's ruling is "fundamentally wrong" if it means that charter schools will receive $11,000 per pupil while other public schools don't.
"At worst, the court is acting in a political manner," he said. "At best, they are acting without knowing what the real issues are for charter schools."
Hornbeck said he considers Hampstead Hill Academy a "perfect test case" for how well a school can be run given the current funding level.