Sixth-graders in 2007 at KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a high-performing… (Baltimore Sun file photo )
Advocates for Maryland's charter schools are gearing up for what they hope will be a watershed year for reform of the state's charter school law, as state officials plan to seek millions in federal funding contingent upon changes in education policies.
Maryland could stand to gain as much as $250 million in Race to the Top funds from the U.S. Department of Education, which this year is awarding money to states with what it considers the most forward-thinking policies. With legislation an essential tool in winning the federal money, advocates for charter schools see the current General Assembly session as the time to push for reform of the state charter school law, widely viewed as weak and in need of an overhaul.
"We're really in the thick of putting forth plans," said David Borinsky, president of the Maryland Charter School Network. "We are trying to focus on Race to the Top issues because they correspond substantially to issues that charter schools have been concerned with for many years."
Borinsky said his group is focusing on a plan to grant charter schools access to capital funding - one of the five guidelines for charter schools under the federal funding. Though charter schools in Maryland fall under the purview of the local school systems, they must raise their own money for buildings and equipment.
Also in the pipeline of possible reforms is a plan for a separate authorizing body for charter schools, but Borinsky cautioned that he was not pushing forward with that bill until he has built support among local superintendents and school boards.
In the General Assembly, state Sen. Nancy Jacobs has drafted two bills to address some, but not all, of the key issues in charter reform: One bill would make charter schools eligible for capital funding; and the other would allow charter school teachers to opt out of their local unions. In the fall, KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a high-performing Baltimore charter, was forced to cut its staff and school hours after a dispute with the teachers union over pay.
"With the economic times we're in, I think it would be very unfortunate if Maryland didn't look at this as opportunity for education reform and to bring money into our schools," said Jacobs, a Harford County Republican. "The charter schools, the greater majority I've heard about, are doing an outstanding job - doing it cheaper than public schools. There's $250 million out there that would go a long way in helping. It would be a shame to miss out on it."
The Race to the Top funds are intended for states that allow charter schools to flourish, use student test data as part of teacher evaluations, close the worst-performing schools and encourage changes at poor-performing schools. While some other states have quickly passed packages of education reform, Maryland is one of 10 states that has yet to apply for the federal funding. But state education officials are vowing to make a run for the hundreds of millions in funding in the next round of applications due this summer.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick recently outlined to lawmakers proposed changes to state law that would put Maryland in good stead for receiving the funding: an extension of the two-year teacher tenure process by at least one year and incentive pay for high-performing teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools.
Grasmick did not address charter school reforms specifically.
"The Maryland state board has not looked at those laws and hasn't taken a position on any legislation," said Bill Reinhard, Grasmick's spokesman. "Maryland has a history of being supportive of charter schools. The state board will look at each piece of legislation individually."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who said in December that he did not believe the state needed to revise laws to be competitive for Race to the Top funding, now is working with Grasmick and others to put together an education reform bill likely addressing Grasmick's suggestions.
"The governor has been working with MSDE to craft a bill that would further improve our public school system and that may put us in better position for the funding," said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for O'Malley, a Democrat.
Todd Ziebarth, vice president of policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that while other states - such as Illinois, Tennessee and California - have used the incentive of the federal funding to move quickly on comprehensive education reform, including changes to charter school laws, Maryland has been silent.
The organization recently rated Maryland's charter school law last in a national ranking.
"It seems to me that Maryland's been asleep, not just slow, on the charter piece," Ziebarth said. "This is a very competitive program, and it's likely that there's going to be just a handful of points between the winners and losers. There have been some states that have taken this seriously ... and there's other states that haven't taken it seriously yet."