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Holding back the city's charter schools [Commentary]

Ten years ago, Baltimore students were able for the first time to enroll in public charter schools, which brought a fresh approach to education in the city.

Publicly funded and part of the Baltimore City Public Schools, charter schools are run by independent operators who develop an academic approach and governance model to engage families in public education in new ways. These schools are held accountable for driving student achievement and for being well managed.

Today, Baltimore is fortunate to have 31 charters across the city, many of which are integral parts of the education landscape. The KIPP schools in Park Heights, Rosemont and The Empowerment Academy on the west side, Midtown Academy and Montessori in the center of the city, Patterson Park and Hampstead Hill on the east side, and City Neighbors and Tunbridge in North Baltimore have become anchors in their communities and provide great educational options for kids and families.

More than 11,000 students attend charter schools in Baltimore — roughly 14 percent of the district — and thousands of families are on waiting lists trying to get into them. But as we mark the 10-year milestone, we are deeply concerned about the future of charters in Baltimore for two reasons: funding and autonomy from the central office.

Charters have been working to obtain equitable funding since before the charter schools opened. This led to a battle in the courts, eventually won by charter schools through a 2007 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling. Baltimore charter operators must still push the district today to comply with the funding guidance handed down by the State Board of Education.

Since 2010, per-pupil funding for charter schools has remained nearly flat even as expenses for things like personnel contracts, which are negotiated by the school system, have risen dramatically. In that same period, charter schools have had to absorb as much as a 14 percent increase in salaries. This imbalance destabilizes charter schools' budgets. This way of doing business simply can't be sustained, no matter how well-managed or high-performing charter schools are.

Charters often struggle to do their best work in a school system where the mindset begins with centralized control. The underlying principle for chartering is that they are given independence to deliver on their agreed-upon academic and management strategies. The intent of the law is to give charter operators and their governing boards as much autonomy as possible to run their programs, separate from central office initiatives.

Too often, the city schools' central office makes no distinction between traditional and charter schools and tries to run them the same way. This is ineffective and unsustainable.

The best charter schools can do things that a large school system simply cannot. Good charters, and their boards, can make good decisions for their school communities quickly and efficiently. They can operate themselves at a high level for a long time, and city schools' leaders should encourage — and require — them to do so.

After a decade, city schools' leaders have yet to articulate a clear vision to authorize and oversee charter schools to get the best performance possible. Without a clear philosophy –— one grounded in best practices and with management systems in place to support it charter schools will never reach their full potential.

Now is the time to fully embrace the value and promise of charters.

A new Baltimore Schools chief executive, Dr. Gregory Thornton, starts in July and he, along with the Board of School Commissioners, can establish a new forward-looking policy about charters, complete with a new charter office that provides appropriate oversight. The Coalition and district staff have done some good work in this area already, but it needs to be a top priority of the new administration.

We need a policy that creates an environment where funding is transparent and predictable and respects the independence of charter school operators — a policy premised on the notion that charters are a great option for families and provide something that the district itself can't provide.

We are optimistic that after 10 years, this new vision is within reach and will bring enormous benefits to Baltimore's students, schools and communities. Charter operators will certainly do their part to make this happen.

Ricarda Easton and Will McKenna are co-chairs of the Coalition of Baltimore Public Charter Schools. Ms. Easton is executive director of Roots & Branches School; her email is reaston@rootsandbranchesschool.org . Mr. McKenna is executive director of Afya Baltimore Inc.; his email is wmckenna@afyabaltimore.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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