Review of charter law urged

State board to hear details of study identifying obstacles to schools' success

December 13, 2006|By Liz Bowie ... | Liz Bowie ...,Sun Reporter

Maryland should consider changing its three-year-old charter school law to get rid of some of the barriers to opening new schools and keeping them in business, according to a study done for the state.

In the past two years, 22 schools have been chartered in Maryland, but they are hindered by limited funding and difficulties in finding buildings. They also are chafing under local school system rules that don't give them enough independence, the report said.

If school districts are approving charters, they also have some responsibility to ensure that they are creating conditions for the schools to succeed, said Lauren Morando Rhim, the University of Maryland faculty research associate who was the lead author of the report. "Don't create them and undermine them at the same time," she said.

Some school districts, for instance, will not allow charters to provide their own school lunches, buy their own classroom furniture or select special education services for students.

Others put up barriers that make it difficult for charters to get buildings.

The evaluation of the charter school program was done for the General Assembly under a contract with the University of Maryland. Rhim has done research on charter schools across the nation for the past decade. The Maryland State Board of Education is expected to be briefed today.

While the report is likely to be well-received by a board that has been generally supportive of charters, state schools officials would not say whether they might push for changes in the law.

Maryland was one of the last states in the nation to enact a charter-school law, and advocates of charters say it is not as friendly to the schools as they would like. Charter schools receive public funds but operate independently.

Only local school systems can authorize a charter. The evaluators recommend that the law be changed to allow more authorizing entities, such as the State Board of Education or universities. Another approach, the report says, would be to set up a new school system in Maryland specifically for charters.

Rhim said some school systems are clearly putting up barriers to prevent charters from opening in their counties. It is not easy to get a charter school opened in the state. Of 41 applications that have been submitted to local school systems for approval, 16 have been turned down.

"The greatest obstacle is the newness of the law," Rhim said.

Public school systems are risk-averse in general and are moving slowly to try to carry out the law properly, she said. In some cases, she said, their caution has been interpreted as obstructionism.

Rhim also said the law is vague in some areas, including how much a charter school should receive per pupil from a local school system. The City Neighbors Charter School has challenged what it gets from the Baltimore system, and the issue might go before the state Court of Appeals.

Some school systems are counting in-kind services, such as special education and school lunches, as part of their funding of charters. But some charters would rather have the money. For instance, Baltimore requires its charters to accept special education services provided by the system, but schools have complained that the services aren't good enough.

Finding a place to put the school is also a major obstacle. Baltimore was recognized as one of the few school systems that has worked with charters to help provide unused space in existing schools or offer school buildings that were closed.

Currently, 16 of the 24 schools are in Baltimore, two are in Anne Arundel and the remainder are in Prince George's, Frederick, Harford and St. Mary's counties.

The evaluation did not attempt to determine whether the schools were providing a good education for students because many of them had not been open more than a year. But Patrick Crain, director of the state Office of School Innovations, said the state intends to look at school achievement in the future.

Despite some of the problems that charters face, he said, the report showed a high degree of parent satisfaction with the new schools.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.