Alonso is right to hold charter schools accountable

Our view: We can't replace mediocre traditional schools with mediocre charter schools

March 03, 2010

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso has presented the city board of school commissioners with a problem of both practical and philosophical import: How long should the city wait before deciding to close charter schools that clearly aren't up to the job they were intended to do?

The issue came to light at a meeting of the city school board last week, when Mr. Alonso recommend revoking the charter of the independently run, publicly financed Dr. Rayner Browne Academy, an elementary/middle school in West Baltimore that is now in its third year of operation. The school has clearly disappointed the high hopes that attended its opening. Scores at Rayner have lagged significantly behind comparable public and charter schools in the city, as well as the district as a whole, and enrollment is declining.

Mr. Alonso wants to retake control of Rayner to prevent students there from falling even further behind. But several parents at the meeting said they wanted Rayner to remain open as a charter school despite its problems, and some school board members are supporting them, expressing fears that the city may be moving too quickly to declare the experiment a failure. Both concerns go to the heart of the question of whether the school's operators should be given more time to show progress.

With 27 currently up and running, Baltimore City has been by far the state's most energetic promoter of charter schools. Mr. Alonso has made them one of the centerpieces of his overall strategy of boosting student achievement by replacing failing public schools with a mix of innovative transformation and charter schools that provide a better learning environment. But that plan can hardly succeed if the new schools coming on line turn out to be no better than the ones they replace.

Unfortunately, that appears to be the case at Rayner. During a period when city school test scores have made steady gains, Rayner students have exhibited lower levels of performance and slower rates of improvement.

Starting in 2006, Rayner expanded to include the middle grades. In 2006-07, 60 percent of Rayner sixth-graders scored proficient or better in math. But by 2008-09, only 34 percent were scoring proficient in math, a decline of 26 percentage points. Rayner middle school students also fell further behind in reading.

And although Rayner elementary school students test scores increased in reading, they remain far behind the district as a whole, and the gap is widening. Students there now lag nearly 15 percentage points behind the city's other elementaries. In math, the performance gap between Rayner students and the city also increased, from 12 percentage points in 2006-07 to almost 15 points in 2008-09.

These numbers clearly tell the story of a school in trouble, and Rayner's students are suffering for it. Not only are they failing to keep up with the improvements at other city schools, they're actually getting worse. That should be unacceptable to both their parents and to the school board members who say they are committed to meaningful reform.

How much more evidence does the school board need to conclude that Rayner isn't doing the job and that the situation is unlikely to change any time soon? If board members can't make up their minds to revoke the school's charter in this case, it's hard to imagine any circumstances in which they would do so.

That's why the board's credibility is now on the line. Either it can take the tough decision to do what is necessary -- however painful in the short run that may prove for some parents and their children -- or it can send a signal to the entire community that, despite repeated promises to hold failing schools accountable, nothing much has changed at all.

Readers respond

Given the experience and expertise of the charter school operator at Rayner Browne Academy, it is surprising that the school system recommended termination (and we hope that the superintendent, the charter operator and the school board will work out their disagreements about the evaluation process). But public charter school advocates fully support Alonso's determination to demand all schools in the system meet a high standard.

No less than with mediocre commercial airline pilots, mediocre brain surgeons, mediocre online dating services and mediocre district-run schools, mediocre charter schools should be held accountable.

David Borinsky, Baltimore The writer is president of the Maryland Charter School Network.

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