Montgomery County finally takes the charter school plunge

Our view: School officials' approval of the district's first charter school represents a long-overdue reform

July 28, 2011

Montgomery County school board officials deserve congratulations for their decision this week to allow the first charter school to open in the district. For years, board members resisted pressure to authorize charter schools, arguing they would distract from efforts to improve a school system that was already regarded as one of the best in the country. The dynamic there was the same one that has slowed the charter school movement in nearly every Maryland school district; critics complain that everywhere except Baltimore City, local officials have simply sought to avoid the competition from publicly financed but independently operated charters.

By approving the application from a group that wants to expand an existing preschool/kindergarten Montessori program into a pre-K through sixth grade public charter school, Montgomery County officials have signaled they are at least open to the idea that the innovation offered by charter schools could benefit a high-performing school system. The real test will come when the board is asked to consider the next charter school application. Will it summarily turn the proposal down, as it has so often done before, or will it judge each case on its merits with the goal of expanding the range of choices available to parents and students? And will the acceptance of a charter in Montgomery make other Maryland school systems think twice about rejecting charters, as they too often have done?

Such questions are worth asking given that the group sponsoring the Montessori charter school, Crossway Community Inc., was turned down as recently as last year — without explanation — when it applied to expand its program. When the group appealed that decision to the state board of education, state officials found the county had failed to provide any reasonable grounds for rejecting the proposal and described its rationale for denying Crossway's application as "vague and, at best, confusing."

That episode was the clearest example of a serious weakness in Maryland's charter school law, which allows local school boards to reject charter school applications for virtually any reason at all, including the personal biases of individual board members. The most the state board can do is review the local board's decision to see whether it meets the minimum requirements of the law and, if it doesn't, send it back to the local board with a recommendation that the matter be reconsidered.

What the state board can't do, however, is overrule a local board's decision to reject a charter school application, or independently authorize such schools to operate in a district. That's something lawmakers need to look at, because at present there's no independent agency empowered to authorize charter schools if a local board objects, even though the Obama administration has signaled that under proposed changes in the No Child Left Behind law it may require states to increase access to charter schools as a condition of continued federal aid.

Maryland should either establish such an independent authority for chartering new schools whose applications are rejected by local boards or give that power directly to the state board of education. The difficulty of opening new charter schools is one reason that aside from Baltimore City, which has 33 charter schools, only a handful of other districts in the state have permitted them to operate. Beefing up the state's charter school law, and establishing their right to compete for state school construction funds, would encourage more of the kind of innovation and experimentation Maryland needs to happen in its schools.

Montgomery County officials did the right thing by showing that local school districts can tap into the energy and excitement of the charter school movement and harness it to improve the quality of instruction for schoolchildren, even if officials there have barely stuck their toes in the water so far. It's still a step in the right direction, and we hope other districts that presently have no charters will soon follow Montgomery's lead. In a state whose future depends on a highly skilled workforce capable of competing successfully in a global economy, we need to pursue all avenues to assure that every child has the opportunity to benefit from an excellent education.

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