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Don't leave charter schools behind [Commentary]

The people of Baltimore care about inequity. We think about what is fair and right, and together, we have come up with some great solutions to some of the disparities we see in our city. The Baltimore Education Coalition, the ACLU, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, and the city's school system recently brought to light the injustice of students being taught in school system buildings that are clearly inadequate. Some facilities had no heat in the winter and no air conditioning in the summer. Windows were painted shut, water fountains didn't work and the walls in some classrooms were crumbling.

There was a groundswell of support for renovations, and the schools across the city — including the city's charter schools — worked together to make city residents' voices heard to help change the way we finance debt for public school buildings. Now, 15 new city schools will be built and dozens more renovated. There is more work to be done, but if we continue these efforts, one day every single public school building in Baltimore will be standing as a symbol for how we see our students. Every building will be in good shape, designed for success, and a place that is more than adequate — a place that we can love and care for, just as we love and care for the children we are here to serve.

We now face the challenge of achieving facilities equity for charter schools, which are independently run public schools embedded within the city's public school system. Our teachers belong to the union; our more than 12,000 students are part of the system. We are mission and vision driven and held to a higher standard than any other system schools. Every five years, the Baltimore school district evaluates our effectiveness based on its standards and holds charters accountable for results. (We should do the same for every school in the city.)

The charter school disparity is in the funding model for school buildings. Charter schools must pay for facility improvements from the operating funds they receive. But system schools will be allocated millions for capital improvements. And while charters that are located in public school buildings scheduled for renovation will benefit from those funds, nearly half of the city's charter school students will not because they attend classes in facilities that are neither public nor supported by public funds.

So, how do charter schools meet this challenge? There are many examples of creative solutions, such as renting vacant church school buildings and leveraging loans from organizations designed to help charters, like The Reinvestment Fund. Guarantees by foundations have helped many charters take on debt to provide a good school building. At City Neighbors Foundation, which operates three charter schools in Northeast Baltimore, we successfully refinanced short-term bank debt with long-term fixed rate bonds for our Hamilton campus. There was a lot of hard work that went into structuring the deal; working in cooperation with the city school system (it guaranteed the bonds) and M&T Bank; and ensuring the feasibility of the plan of finance. But not everyone will be able to accomplish a deal like that, and now the city school system has decided not to guarantee any loans for charter schools. The lack of facility funding for charter schools discourages new charters from opening, and that is a loss to the whole system.

The results charter schools are attaining in student achievement, family engagement, attendance, increased enrollment and creating excellent choices for students in this city are indisputable. The ideal of charter schools is to allow innovation to be part of our school system, and to prove that together, we can shine the light on disparities, come up with solutions, and make a difference with children and families. We need to find a facility solution for these schools too.

Bobbi Macdonald is executive director of City Neighbors Foundation. Her email address is bmacdonald@cityneighbors.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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