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Baltimore principals call for funding forums [Commentary]

As recently named "transformational" principals at great traditional and charter schools, we call for public forums hosted by a credible, independent organization to discuss the equitable funding of schools in Baltimore. We believe charter school students receive more funding than traditional school students and that public forums will shed light on what is fair and help move the conversation from equity to adequacy of funding for all students.

There is widespread belief among teachers and principals that traditional public schools are subsidizing charters. This should trouble parents in traditional schools, especially parents helping school family councils make ends meet during budget season. It should trouble responsible charter parents and staff who do not want to succeed at the expense of children attending a traditional school. Each charter should reflect on its budget, then review the budget of a nearby traditional school — and vice versa — and discern the reasons for the disparity. The Baltimore City Public School System needs budget transparency and an honest conversation about how much it takes to run a great school.

The fact is Baltimore City charter schools receive about $9,300 per student, while Baltimore's traditional schools receive about $7,300 per student. In exchange for more cash, charters pay for or opt out of district services including professional development. Charters have fewer network staff supporting their work. Charter budgets also cover costs that traditional school budgets do not, including principal salaries and student transportation. Do the additional services that traditional schools receive make up the difference in their lower per pupil funding? In our experience the answer is no, but we want the facts.

In a school of 500 students, the difference amounts to a disparity of $1 million each year between what a charter school receives and what a traditional school receives. Despite some differences in spending that mitigate the disparity, charters still have more money for books, teachers, support staff, technology and instructional materials. In addition, charter schools carry over funds each year while traditional schools are not permitted to do so.

Charters typically spend the difference on:

(1) operator salaries, principal salaries, professional development and overhead;

(2) capital improvements to publicly and privately owned buildings that run into the millions of dollars;

(3) small class sizes and additional staff;

(4) or annual mortgages of up to $1 million to cover decades-long loans used to purchase buildings.

We note that the Maryland legislature did not adequately provide for charter school facilities, pressing this fourth spending pattern. Moving forward, charters should look first to surplus space owned by the Baltimore City Public School System. However, the charter facilities issue should not be solved on the backs of traditional school students. Charters must operate with commensurate funding.

Some believe charters in the Baltimore City Public School System do not receive enough. The Maryland Charter School Network (MCSN) recently disseminated a University of Arkansas report that shows Baltimore's 32 charter schools receive nearly 42 percent less funding per pupil than district schools. But their flawed analysis fails to consider centralized costs of educating students that all schools share, and their numbers do not add up (their figures, for example, suggest that the school system has a $1.7 billion budget — roughly $400 million higher than the actual budget).

It does not matter whether a school is traditional or charter in terms of student learning, joy and college and career preparation. Test scores and other measures reveal that charters outperform traditional schools — sometimes. There are many traditional schools that outperform charters.

In fact, a new study by the Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now (MD CAN) highlights outstanding student performance at six traditional schools and two charters. Of course, great schools depend on a talented teaching staff and what researcher Richard Elmore calls the instructional core — the teacher, the student and the content. Everything else supports that work.

Tough economic times, salaries that keep pace with the market and the cost of living require careful planning by all schools. We recognize the importance of attracting and keeping great teachers. By state law, all teachers — including teachers in charters — are certified by the state and are members of a collective bargaining unit. We support the good jobs that collective bargaining brings because those jobs attract better teachers.

Every student in every school deserves the best. Let's have an honest forum to answer the equity question.

Mark Bongiovanni, principal of Armistead Gardens School (mabongiovanni@bcps.k12.md.us); Mark Gaither, principal of Wolfe Street Academy (cgaither@bcps.k12.md.us); Cindy Harcum, principal of Baltimore City College (charcum@bcps.k12.md.us): Matt Hornbeck, principal of Hampstead Hill Academy (jmhornbeck@bcps.k12.md.us): Joe Manko, principal of Liberty Elementary (jmanko@bcps.k12.md.us).

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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