Union deal: Good for KIPP, bad for the charter movement

Our view: Agreement to keep a high-achieving Baltimore middle school open relieves pressure for the General Assembly to fix Maryland's flawed charter school law

March 17, 2011

It is undeniably good news that KIPP Baltimore and the city's teachers union have come to a long-term agreement that will allow the high-performing charter school to maintain its rigorous academic model almost entirely intact without being forced to pay teachers at an unaffordable rate. The school, which features extra-long school days and Saturday and summer classes, has established itself as one of the best middle schools in the state based on its test scores, a feat made all the more impressive by the number of its students who come from poor families.

The Baltimore Teachers Union and school officials deserve a great deal of credit for bargaining in good faith over an agreement that will preserve the school's ability to operate under the KIPP model, which is now in use by schools in 20 states. The deal calls for a nine-hour school day, down from 91/2, but KIPP officials say that structure has worked in KIPP schools elsewhere. Teachers will get 20 percent more pay than the district standard, down from the current 20.5 percent premium. It's a reasonable compromise.

KIPP had been operating on a one-year agreement with the teachers union, which insisted that the extra pay KIPP provided wasn't sufficient to cover the extra hours, and the uncertainty about the school's future inhibited its ability to raise funds and finance needed improvements to its Northwest Baltimore building. The school's board had insisted that a 10-year deal was necessary to make that possible, and now they've got it. With those obstacles cleared away, another generation of students can benefit from the KIPP model, and its expansion into elementary school grades can continue.

But there is a lead lining to this silver cloud.

The deal with the teachers union kills legislation under consideration in Annapolis that would have created a mechanism for not only KIPP but also other charter schools with innovative models to operate under conditions different from those in the standard union contract. After striking the deal, KIPP asked the legislation's sponsors to withdraw it, and hearings scheduled for this week have been canceled.

The bill would have allowed teachers at a school to agree to nonstandard pay agreements, provided that 80 percent of them voted to do so. That would have helped KIPP, where teachers put in about a third more hours than the standard school day, but it also could have encouraged the establishment of other, equally successful programs elsewhere. Even with this agreement, the teachers union still holds all of the cards.

The union's objection to KIPP runs somewhat counter to the reform-minded contract it approved last year, which allows for schools to choose nonstandard conditions for anything other than pay. And it is indicative of Maryland's half-hearted embrace of charter schools. Maryland has what is regarded as one of the weaker charter school laws in the nation, in large part because it is one of only a few states where charter teachers are forced to adhere to the terms of union contracts.

In addition, local school districts have ultimate veto authority over whether a charter school can be established. KIPP's difficulties notwithstanding, Baltimore has embraced charters, but they are rare in the state's suburban jurisdictions, where school boards appear to fear the competition they provide. Last year, Montgomery County rejected two charter schools, and a review by the state Board of Education found that the local board provided no reasonable basis for its decision.

Even beyond getting approval from the school board, finding an appropriate facility can be an insurmountable barrier for charters — a problem exacerbated by their ineligibility for state construction and maintenance funding. There is the chance for some progress on this issue; the House of Delegates voted to include charters in a bill authorizing $15.9 million for school construction under a special federal program that requires such projects to include private sector matching funds. The bill hasn't gotten final House approval yet, and the Senate has not yet acted on its version of the legislation.

Maryland charter school advocates have now missed out on two potential opportunities to get the charter-averse General Assembly to change the law — last year's effort to win federal money under the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, and this year, when the possibility that KIPP would close brought attention to the issue. Now it will be all too easy for the legislature to leave the charter school law alone. That doesn't matter for KIPP and the thousands of its students who will benefit from the new agreement with the teachers union, but it does for countless others who will be left out.

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