More charters, more choices

Our view: In too many school districts, the answer always seems to be 'no'

February 07, 2011

Montgomery County is rightly proud of its public school system, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the state. Perhaps that's why, nearly eight years after state lawmakers passed a law allowing for the establishment of charter schools — alternative institutions that receive public funds but operate independently — the Montgomery County school board has yet to approve a single application to open one.

Is that because no one has come up with a credible plan for a school that would give parents more choices for educating their children? Or is it because local school officials simply don't want the competition?

The state school board looked into the matter last year, after Montgomery County school officials turned down the applications of two groups that wanted to set up new charter schools in the district. What they found goes a long way toward explaining why school reform advocates like the Washington-based Center for Education Reform have rated Maryland's charter school law as one of the weakest in the nation. Despite passing important reforms last year regarding lengthening of the time it takes teachers to earn tenure and linking student test scores with teacher evaluations, lawmakers need to take another look at strengthening the state's charter school law if Maryland is to build on those gains.

In Montgomery County, for example, one of the groups wanted to set up a primary and middle school with an emphasis on foreign languages called the Global Garden Public Charter School. The other group, Crossway Community Inc., wanted to expand an existing preschool/kindergarten Montessori program into a pre-k through sixth grade public charter school. After Montgomery school officials denied their applications, they appealed to the state Board of Education. In a recent opinion, the state board found Montgomery had failed to provide any reasonable grounds for rejecting the proposals, saying the explanations given by local officials were "vague and, at best, confusing" and questioning whether the decision was not simply a result of local board members' personal biases.

Under Maryland's charter school law, the state education board can't approve charter school applications on its own, nor can it overrule a local school district's decision to deny one. The most it can do is review the local board's decision to determine whether the process by which it was reached was fair, reasonable and in conformity with the requirements of law. Where it finds these conditions have not been met, it can send a rejected application back to the district with a recommendation that it be reconsidered, which is what it did with the Global Garden and Crossway proposals.

School officials in Montgomery County, however, have indicated that although they intend to respond to the state board's concerns about how their decisions were reached, they have no intention of reversing them. A school department spokesman pointed out that the state board's finding only addressed the procedures for handling the applications, not the substantive issues regarding curriculum, finances, staffing and school governance that led board members to reject the applications. Nor did it address the failure of the law itself to specify what those procedures should be.

In fairness, Montgomery County isn't the only school district in Maryland to resist charter schools. Of the 42 such schools presently operating in the state, 33 are in Baltimore City, with the rest scattered among a handful of other districts. And while it's true that charters are often thought of as only for low-performing school districts in need of educational reform, the innovation and greater choice they bring can become assets for even the best-performing school systems.

But for that to happen, lawmakers must strengthen Maryland's current charter school law. One needed change is a provision establishing an independent authority to charter new schools whose applications are turned down by local school boards or, alternatively, giving that power to the state school board. Another would be allowing charters to compete for state school construction funds so they can upgrade their facilities. Both would encourage the kind of innovation and experimentation the state needs to see happen in its schools.

Maryland lawmakers practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to vote for the reforms last year that later helped the state win $250 million in federal education funds from the Obama administration. But putting teeth into the state's charter school law this year to help build on that progress should be a no-brainer in a state whose future depends on a well-educated workforce. The more options parents have for educating their children in ways that spark their curiosity and inspire a love for learning, the more likely they will be to succeed in life as well as in school.

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