Do charters pass the test?

October 04, 2007|By James Campbell

A recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals could result in the transfer of $20 million from Baltimore's traditional public schools to charter schools. The decision, which upholds the Maryland State Board of Education's position on the funding of charter schools, also removes the ability of the city's school board to try to achieve an equitable funding balance between the two systems. This balance is important in avoiding the problems faced by other urban communities with significantly expanding charter school populations.

Because school funding is based on enrollment, the money follows the child. Theoretically, these independently run schools are free of the regulation and bureaucratic requirements of traditional schools and have the autonomy to try innovative approaches to learning.

There are almost 4,000 such schools nationwide, enrolling about a million students.

In 2003, the General Assembly passed charter school legislation. While giving chartering authority to local school boards, the law failed to spell out the level of funding to be provided other than to say the funding should be "commensurate" with that of regular public schools. Several Baltimore charter schools challenged the city school board's allocation and appealed to the state school board. When the matter ended up in court, the Court of Appeals supported the state's position that charter schools are entitled to additional funding.

Although they are popular with the public, there is no conclusive evidence that charter schools perform better than traditional schools. In fact, one of the largest studies - of almost 400,000 students - released in August 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education reported that fourth-graders in traditional public schools performed better in reading and math than students in charter schools.

Amy Stuart Wells, a researcher at Columbia University's Teachers College, recently wrote, "Those of us who study research findings realize that the promises made by charter school supporters nearly a decade ago to increase student achievement, choice and innovation have not been fulfilled. We need to pay more attention to the data than rhetoric."

Despite the research, their numbers continue to grow and, in some cases, pose a challenge to the public school system. In Washington, D.C., where 23 percent of the students attend charter schools, a group of traditional public school parents filed a lawsuit accusing city and federal officials of creating a two-track system of education that favors charters and thus impoverishes children who remain in the traditional system. Last year, D.C. schools Superintendent Clifford B. Janey called for a moratorium on new charters because they threatened the traditional system while failing to offer a high-quality alternative.

In Dayton, Ohio, where 26 percent of the students attend a charter school, Thomas J. Lasley, a dean at the University of Dayton, cautioned, "We are close to the tipping point where the charters damage the capacity of the public schools to create a sufficient education infrastructure for the community." He expressed further concern about whether public schools could respond if several charters collapsed simultaneously.

Just such a scenario occurred in the Ora Grande school district in California, where a charter school operator, facing bankruptcy, abruptly abandoned his operation one month before school opened after using $100 million in state financing to set up 60 charter schools to serve 6,000 students. The district struggled to find classrooms for the students and placements for the teachers.

In response to these concerns, most states (25 of the 40 that have charter schools) have enacted some type of ceiling on their numbers.

For example, Illinois has a statewide limit of 60 schools, and Chicago can have no more than 30.

Maryland has no limit, and the numbers - so far - are relatively small, with the exception of Baltimore. Of the 30 charter schools statewide, 22 are in the city.

To ensure that charter schools fulfill their promise of providing innovative learning opportunities for all students within the existing public school system, and avoid the problems faced by other states, the legislature should consider strengthening the law. This should include clarifying the funding question, establishing a temporary ceiling to give the state more time to assess the overall effectiveness of charter schools, and adopting more rigorous accounting of financial and academic performance.

As one of the last states to approve charter schools, Maryland is fortunate to have 15 years of experience to draw upon. We must make the most of this opportunity.

James Campbell, a member of the Baltimore school board, is a community outreach and communications senior manager at the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is

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