Treat charters and traditional schools equally [Letter]

May 21, 2014

In "Holding back the city's charter schools" (May 7) Ricarda Easton and Will McKenna present their case for the importance of charter schools to education in Baltimore City. We are three educators with extensive experience in Baltimore, including in charter schools, and we argue that while they may be right, it is not in the way they seem to think.

At the center of Ms. Easton and Mr. McKenna's argument are two linked claims: that charters have brought a fresh approach to education in the city and that they are being held back from doing even more good by the combination of flat funding, centralized control and a lack of willingness on the part of city schools' central office to adequately distinguish between charters and traditional public schools. Taken together, these claims imply that charters deserve something more than traditional public schools because of their greater potential to do well.

We think this implication is wrong. Ms. Easton and Mr. McKenna argue that "charters are held accountable for driving student achievement and for being well managed," but this is equally true for all public schools. What's good for charters should be good for all public schools serving all of our city's youth, and if charters have shown that schools need better funding and less centralized control, those same autonomies should be extended to traditional public schools. Just as accountability has increased dramatically for all schools, so should reasonable autonomies.

Take the issue of funding. Ms. Easton and Mr. McKenna argue that charters have had to fight for equitable funding, and they argue that funding should be transparent. They clearly believe that charters do not get their fair due. On this we disagree with them. First, the legal decisions to which they refer would lead to an unsustainable system if all schools converted to charters. Furthermore, many current operators are not set up to take on all the responsibilities currently handled by city schools' central offices. Finally, charters get all kinds of benefits from being part of the district, including the ability to rent space in city-owned buildings and maintenance on these buildings at a rate well below the market.

However, their point that funding is not transparent is a good one. All city schools deserve a better accounting of how money is spent, how the various funding formulas for different kinds of schools work, and how the central office spends the public's money. More transparency around funding would allow everyone to see the differences between the formulas for charters and traditional public schools, leading to a more balanced conversation about the pros and cons of different funding models. This would benefit all schools.

Benefiting all public schools should be the goal of all public educators, whether they work in charters or traditional public schools. The original proposals for charters actually came from teachers unions. Charters were to be laboratories of innovation where promising new strategies could be tried. Those that worked would be brought back into the traditional public school system, while those that did not would be discarded. It is in this spirit that we argue that whatever autonomy has been shown to be good for charters should be extended to all public schools. Thus, while we support the call for "an environment where funding is transparent and predictable," we cannot support the stance that pits charters against traditional public schools. If now is really "the time to fully embrace the value and promise of charters," that means working together to fulfill the original intent of charters. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Eric Rice, Helen Atkinson and Jon McGill, Baltimore

Mr. Rice is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, as well as the President of the Baltimore Teacher Network, an operator of two Baltimore City public charter schools. Ms. Atkinson is is director of the Teachers’ Democracy Project at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Mr. McGill is a career educator. The opinions expressed are made in their individual capacities and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations with which they are affiliated.


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