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A two-year charter funding plan for Baltimore

A Baltimore principal offers a plan to redirect the school system's focus from funding to teaching.

Children in Baltimore City's traditional and charter schools deserve a great education. We are one community and must find a way to talk about charter funding without threatening to close or hamstring our great traditional and charter schools. Choice is here to stay. The fight over funding destabilizes the public's already fragile view of city schools and further discourages thousands of families on charter school waiting lists. In fact, this fighting encourages families with options to move to other counties.

Lawsuits chill meaningful discourse and cost money that is better spent on instruction. Lack of budget transparency makes even traditional school principals ask how money is being spent in city schools. In spite of disagreements around funding, there is much common ground, especially when it comes to what makes a great school and the importance of great teachers. A plan is needed to move the focus from lawsuits, charter operators and central office back to where it matters most — our teachers and students in the classroom.

The best news in recent weeks is Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's decision to ask University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke to mediate between the charter operators suing the district and City Schools. While the parameters of those talks are being discussed, here is a plan describing one way forward.

The two-year solution laid out here would give all parties — including elected officials — time to consider:

•Upcoming findings of the Maryland State Department of Education-commissioned study by school finance expert Allen Odden on what constitutes adequate funding for each public school;

•The pending legislatively-mandated review of administrative costs in each of Maryland's school districts;

•And thoughtful, fair and transparent ways to further define "commensurate funding" as called for in Maryland's charter law.

A two-year solution would also allow for the parties to engage in restoring the trust and communication necessary to build a strong system of both traditional and charter schools that support each other and all students in the city. Baltimore needs a strong, united school system that has the common goal of attracting, serving and keeping families in the city. The $1 billion in school construction funds approved by the state legislature is recent history that reminds us of what can be accomplished when we work together.

This plan calls on charter operators suing the district to drop their lawsuits and, as long as the conditions of the plan are met, agree not to sue again. In exchange for dropping the lawsuits, the district would agree to a new, independent financial audit each year for at least two years by a respected firm such as Education Resource Strategies. The parameters of the audit, the selection of the firm, and the readability and transparency of the report itself should be agreed upon by all parties. The plan also calls for action and incentives to continue gains made by the city's traditional and charter schools. And, there are costs associated with it.

The district initially proposed $9,551 per charter pupil for this school year. Due to a reduction in overall revenue, charters received $9,387. The difference of $164 per pupil times 14,000 charter students is $2.3 million. Thus, a two-year solution would cost $4.6 million. Assume that amount does not meet the definition of commensurate funding. Add another $700,000 each year and make the amount to be distributed to charters $3 million a year for two years. That amounts to about $215 more than charters currently receive per pupil each year, at a total two-year cost of $6 million.

What do students in traditional schools get out of this plan? One of the most promising efforts underway to support all students is the Family League of Baltimore's Community Schools initiative. The work of the American Federation of Teachers, the local Baltimore Teacher's Union, and advocacy groups such as the ACLU of Maryland to expand this effective programming is taking root. Currently, there are 52 community schools in the city school system serving 24,000 students. Wrap-around services for neighborhood schools, including after-school academic and extracurricular programming, mental health services and food pantries, are showing great results in improving achievement and putting our students on the path to college and productive careers. Under this two-year plan, the community schools initiative will receive an amount equal to the additional funding provided to charter schools; $3 million a year would provide enough money for the Family League to add about 15 more schools. Thus, costs associated with additional support for Community Schools over two years total $6 million.

The total two-year cost of this plan is $12 million, which provides significantly more funding for charters and a meaningful expansion of community schools. The plan proposes that the costs associated with increasing and stabilizing charter funding and expanding the effective community schools initiative would be covered by a partnership to include city schools, the City of Baltimore, the state of Maryland and Baltimore's private and philanthropic sectors. The cost to each partner would be $1.5 million each year for two years. In addition, money and time spent on litigation could be spent on students.

This plan supports traditional and charter students and buys time for state and local officials, working with all stakeholders, to more clearly define commensurate funding for charters and set in place permanent, transparent, stable, equitable and adequate funding for all of Baltimore City's children.

Matt Hornbeck is a graduate of city schools, a former teacher in city schools, and is in his 13th year as the principal of a city school. Matt can be reached at principalhornbeck@gmail.com.

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