Eighteen charter schools seeking contract renewals to continue operating in Baltimore are undergoing a rigorous review process that will uniformly evaluate them for the first time since they began populating the district 10 years ago.
The majority of the city's charter schools, which are autonomous but receive funding from the school system, were opened under schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who had called them "engines for reform." Their populations have ballooned to encompass nearly 13 percent of city students, and their presence has helped raise Baltimore's profile as a district of school choice.
But school system and charter leaders agree that they have been operating for the past several years under a cloud of uncertainty when it comes to what's expected of them and their future in the district.
"We've had a lot of starts and stops, so we're encouraged by this process," said Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Public Charter School and co-chair of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools.
"We embrace the concept that we have autonomy and we should have accountability, but the accountability measures have changed too often over the past several years. But there's an eagerness on our part and the district's to have that articulated. And this is the most fair that we've seen."
In addition to the charters, city school officials will decide in the next two months whether to renew contracts of seven other schools. They include four "transformation schools," which are combined middle-high schools with a theme of college or career preparation, and three "contract schools," run by independent companies.
The review process comes at a particularly pivotal time for charters — the state's charter law was passed in 2003 — as the schools' leaders mark their 10th anniversary and look to the next decade in the district.
The city has 33 charter schools, the most of any other district in the state, and has revoked one charter school license.
In 2010, the district revoked the charter license of Dr. Rayner Brown Elementary/Middle, which was run by the Baltimore Curriculum Project, because the district said its performance was lacking. Months later, the school's achievement spiked, sparking a debate about a lack of clear standards and a consistent evaluation process.
Last year, district and charter leaders began collaborating to create an extensive and rigorous measure of performance that includes test scores, school climate, fiscal management, enrollment and retention, and staying true to their promises.
Alison Perkins-Cohen, who oversees the district's office of new initiatives, acknowledged that in the past, the "process wasn't consistent, and schools didn't know what exactly they were going to be evaluated on."
And that required the district to start from scratch, she said.
"We started at the very beginning by asking, 'What do we value in education and what does a good school look like?'" Perkins-Cohen said. "We didn't want it to be just test scores. All of the research is telling us you want multiple indicators."
The charter schools' performance is mixed, though overall they have maintained a slight edge over traditional schools — between a 3 percentage and 5 percentage point lead — in reading and math on the Maryland School Assessments, and the performance gap between the two types of schools has narrowed in the past three years.
"There are some charters that are doing a good job, and there are ones who aren't doing so well," Perkins-Cohen said. "It's a continuous improvement model, but we absolutely view charters as a vital part of our reform strategy."
But in recent years, charter schools have faced challenges juggling their individual missions with the district's ever-changing reforms, which include the new Baltimore Teachers Union contract.
Charters have especially felt the financial pinch of the contract, which has required significant pay increases for teachers who meet a "model" criteria established by the union. For charter schools, the salary boosts have dealt blows to their budgets because they pay actual salaries out of their own budgets, rather than the average salaries for educators that traditional schools are charged.
Moreover, charter schools' autonomous structure allows them to determine the criteria for their best educators, whereas they didn't have a say in the new contract model.
Similarly, other programs that come with mandates attached — such as the federal Race to the Top grant — also have infringed on charters' autonomy.
"Sometimes it's like trying to fit something round into a square peg," said Ricarda Easton, executive director of Roots and Branches charter school and co-chair of the coalition. "And it can be very difficult to focus on our mission, vision and kids when we have all of these different things to [deal] with."
District officials said they recognize that there are challenges that have caused charters' autonomous structure to clash with district-wide initiatives.
"It's a major source of conversation, and it's an ongoing challenge, and we're trying to think of different ways of representing charters in all of those conversations," Perkins-Cohen said. "The balancing of delivering on our commitments and giving them autonomy at the same time is a work in progress."
Among the longstanding challenges charters have faced is the funding it receives from the school system.
Under Alonso, all schools receive funding based on a per-pupil model. The charter schools receive a higher per-pupil allotment than traditional schools every year, because they are paid cash in lieu of services that they do not receive from the school system, like food and facilities.
School officials have also said that the charters' growth has become a financial burden to the school system.
But, school leaders say, the formula is interpreted differently every year — state auditors found that the district actually shorted charters in 2010 per-pupil allotments — and their per-pupil funding has been affected by the district's rising costs, particularly in the areas of transportation and special education.
School system officials are in the process of assessing where costs of services can be trimmed and developing a "fee-for-service" program that would allow all schools to opt into the services they receive from the central office.
"It's been difficult," Perkins-Cohen said. "But it's been a priority for us, to understand the differences between the formulas."
And the state charter law, which is recognized nationally as one of the weakest, may be revisited in the legislative session to help flush out many of these issues.
"We won't be able to survive and thrive if we have contracts and policies that affect us disproportionately," McKenna said. "We're definitely thinking about the next 10 years."