Victory for charter schools?

September 11, 2006

Charter schools in Maryland received a financial boost from the Court of Special Appeals recently. But the ruling could give charters even more money than other public schools, posing practical and legal challenges that need to be resolved.

Charter schools often take different approaches to learning, using themes such as social justice as educational focal points. They also tend to operate with fewer rules and mandates, attracting innovative teachers and helping students who don't do well in traditional settings.

Maryland requires local school boards to approve charter schools and to give them funding that is "commensurate with" what other public schools receive in the district. Two approved charter schools in Baltimore challenged the city school system, noting that its offers of about $7,950 and $8,100 per pupil for the school years starting in 2005 and 2006, respectively, were inadequate.

The State Board of Education agreed with the charter schools and said they were entitled to nearly $11,000 per pupil, based roughly on a total of all the federal, state and city money received by the school system, divided by the total number of students, with roughly a 2 percent reduction for administrative costs. That calculation was not well-reasoned and failed to adequately account for special grants, funds for low-income or special-education students that might not be included in a charter school's population and a broader range of centralized expenses that the school system is obligated to pay. Those kinds of costs bring the system's average per pupil expenditure closer to $8,700, including cash and services.

But now the state school board's calculation has basically been endorsed by the appellate court. With such limited recognition of additional costs that could be deducted from the total amount that charter schools receive, where is the extra money supposed to come from? Although still sorting through the ramifications, city school officials are rightly concerned that the answer will be: from traditional, non-charter schools. If no further relief can be expected from the courts, school officials should seek a legislative or administrative compromise that is fair to all public school students, whether they attend charter or more traditional schools.

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