Holding charter schools back

Maryland needs legislation that works to protect the autonomy required to create innovative schools.

Maryland law states that the purpose of charter schools is to bring innovation to the public school system. The premise of the law is that groups of dedicated and talented folks can come together to manifest a unique vision or model for a school. It acknowledges the difficulty or, at least, the lack of historical precedent for large school districts to experiment, design and innovate. It also acknowledges that there may be many successful paths to a great education and that one size does not fit all. This all should seem reasonable.

These groups of founders and educators who take on the tremendous challenge of starting an innovative school from scratch enter into this effort with significantly greater accountability than traditional schools. They go through a significant application and vetting process to open. Charter schools then go through rigorous, multi-faceted reviews every three to five years, and those that do not meet academic, cultural, mission-driven and financial expectations can be closed at the end of their contract term. The same level of accountability is not true for traditional public schools; if it were, the Baltimore school district would be closed.

In exchange for this accountability, charter schools are to be given the autonomy necessary to really dive into their innovative models. In Baltimore, this innovation includes, but is certainly not limited to, a Montessori educational approach, language immersion schools, arts integration models, project-based learning models, parent-school cooperative governance models, and so many more. Clearly, the same level of innovation has not been possible for traditional schools embedded in a large, centralized district like Baltimore City's.

That's the simple trade-off: innovation/autonomy for greater accountability.

So, here's the problem. As it stands now, charters do not have the legal and contractual protection needed to bring the promise of innovation to systems. Autonomy levels are vague and often at the whim of whoever is leading the district. District and school policies, from teacher and principal evaluation to daily class scheduling, rarely take into account the innovative work and needs of charters. There are no guarantees that charters can hire folks who meet their very unique models. Funding structures are amorphous and open to district interpretation each year. These kinds of issues hinder the promise of charters and innovation. If all of these elements can conceivably look exactly like the status quo and every other school, how can innovation even be possible?

We need legislation that works to protect — contractually — the autonomy required to create innovative and successful schools. For 10 years we have worked to build City Neighbors, a network of three charter schools and a foundation; a significant percentage of our time has been spent fighting the system for our autonomy, our right to be free of system policies and guidelines — our right to innovate. What more could we accomplish if that fight was over?

At City Neighbors we are not a big, for-profit charter management organization; we were founded by 17 Baltimore City families. Believe it or not, we know charters are not the single answer to education reform, though we think we can help. We think that teachers deserve not only the best compensation and support but also the status of experts and co-creators of schools. And we are committed to great public schools everywhere — just ask our partners at traditional schools, come to our teacher events that have charter and traditional teachers present, or look at our track record of working with the district on policy.

Our stance is not an anti- stance. The rhetoric has been heightened and the attacks have been fierce. Many are fearful that if we make this a more friendly charter environment we will lose what we have. But what do we have? Let's push back against all those who stridently defend the status quo and create a law that brings more hope for innovation to a public school system that desperately needs it.

Mike Chalupa serves as the academic director of the City Neighbors Foundation; his email is mchalupa@cityneighbors.org. Bobbi Macdonald serves as the executive director of the City Neighbors Foundation; her email is bmacdonald@cityneighbors.org.

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