The state's highest court heard oral arguments yesterday in two charter school funding cases with major financial implications for Baltimore.
Charter schools are public schools that operate independently under contracts with local school boards. Seventeen of the state's 24 charter schools are located in Baltimore, and the city school board has approved six more to open in the next two years.
The city school system is appealing a September ruling by the second-highest court, the Court of Special Appeals, requiring it to give charter schools as much money per student in cash as it spends in its regular schools. The Court of Appeals yesterday heard arguments in that case, as well as a similar case from Prince George's County.
Currently, the city spends the equivalent of about $11,000 per child in its regular public schools. Charter schools receive $5,859 per child in cash and the rest in services that the school system provides, such as special education and food.
Two city charter schools, City Neighbors and Patterson Park Public, appealed that formula to the state school board in 2005, saying it limited their ability to choose how to provide services. The state school board ruled in the charter schools' favor, and the city school system appealed that decision in court.
Yesterday in Annapolis, the judges on the seven-member Court of Appeals indicated in their comments that charter schools deserve the same funding as regular schools. But determining how much regular schools get proved tricky.
"The theory is that a charter school is a public school and therefore should not get less money for its operation," said Chief Judge Robert M. Bell. "It's entitled to the same amount. ... The question is, how do we get there?"
Lawyers debated finer points such as whether charters should receive average or actual costs of student transportation, how much responsibility they have for central administrative costs and how much grant money they are eligible to receive.