City schools proposes new charter funding, meets same resistance

Baltimore city school officials are preparing to vet a new formula for funding charter schools, but the proposal has already been rejected by the schools' leaders who say that its impact could go so far as to threaten some schools' existence.

School officials presented the new formula -- the latest step in an effort to resolve a longstanding dispute over the state's charter law -- at Tuesday night's meeting.

"We want the community to know the goal is the development of a long-term, sustainable funding model that is good for all children," said city schools CEO Gregory Thornton.

Among the changes proposed is to factor in the amount of low-income students charters serve, provide them with more cash in lieu of services and charge them more administrative costs.

The proposal also would create a range of funding amounts based on student demographics, eliminating the risk of charter schools receiving money for student populations (like special education and English Language Learners) they don't serve.

School officials said that the new formula would be the most equitable, and prevent non-charter schools from disproportionately shouldering the district's financial burdens.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, executive director of new initiatives for the district, said charters are valuable engines of innovation for the district, but that comes at a price.

"We can't support that innovation at the expense of other students," she said. "We have legal and moral obligation to make sure all students in the district receive what they need to be successful."

But charter leaders said that the formula proposed would have a "devastating impact" on the district's 34 charter schools, which serve about 13,700 students.

In a statement, the Maryland Alliance for Public Charter Schools -- formerly the Coalition for Baltimore City Charter Schools -- said the formula hoards millions at central headquarters instead of in schools, and threatens the existence of more than one dozen schools that would struggle to buy books and teachers.

Under the proposal, charter officials said that 26 of its charter schools would see funding levels drop. Among those affected would be eight of the highest-performing schools in the city.

"We are dedicated to creating great public schools – and to improving the entire school system," said Stephanie Simms, interim executive director of the Maryland Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "However, too often, the Baltimore City school administration’s actions have caused Baltimore City families to lose faith in our schools – whether through surprise, inexplicable deficits, or the school year starting without principals and teachers assigned to schools."

"We implore the school system to reconsider this formula, which will provide yet another reason for parents lose faith in our school system," she said.

Simms also pointed to a 2007 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling to point out that the proposed approach to funding charters is also illegal.

The ruling, she said, "made clear that public charter school students are guaranteed commensurate funding and should not be overburdened by central office expenses. This formula defies the Court’s ruling."

At issue is the district's interpretation of the state's charter school law. The law funds charters through a formula that gives them cash in lieu of services that they don't get from the central office. Last year, that came to $9,387. 

The district funds traditional schools similarly, but after central office costs are deducted they receive a little more than $5,000 per-pupil. Non-charter schools also receive additional funding for certain populations, like special education and low-performing students.

Charters have long argued that the district's inefficiencies shortchange all schools' funding, an assertion that district leaders have agreed with.

For years the charters and the district have negotiated a per-pupil allocation because leaders  on both sides have agreed that charter law, if followed to the letter, would essentially bankrupt the system.

The law requires that the district take off 2 percent of administrative costs, and distribute the remainder of its revenue evenly.

But charter and district leaders have also, for years, disagreed on whether the per-pupil allocation is a reasonable and fair interpretation of the law. 

This boiled over this past fiscal year when charter leaders openly rejected Thornton's proposed allocation and alleged that the district had not been transparent with how they came up with its numbers and showed no interest in meeting charter leaders halfway. Thornton has denied that claim.

School board members said they hoped that the formula and the divisiveness it has created can be settled this fall.

Whatever method was agreed upon for funding charters, some said, would need to be applied to the entire district.

"I think what we'll all realize very quickly is that there are no easy solutions," said school board Commissioner Peter Kannam.

A public forum on the new charter formula is scheduled for Sept. 26.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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