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How to help charters and traditional schools [Letter]

I am troubled by the escalating conflict that I see playing out in several places, including on The Sun's op-ed page, between Baltimore City Transformational principals and the Coalition of Baltimore Public Charter Schools. Having been a principal and a board member of the coalition and now working to increase the number of high-quality school seats for all children, regardless of their address, in both traditional and public charter schools, I understand the perspectives of both sides. I have enormous respect for the leaders on both sides, who are doing great things for Baltimore's children, and I know that the leaders on both sides care deeply about all the children in the city.

In fact, there is a common interest between traditional public schools and public charter schools that would benefit all children — increased decision-making power at the school level in both traditional and public charter schools. Currently, traditional public school principals find themselves with very little decision-making power over the funds allocated for their students. While public charter principals have autonomy over more funding, the idiosyncratic nature of the Maryland Charter Law — it is the only public charter law of 43 in the country that requires the local school system to hire, manage, compensate and evaluate all public charter employees and to subject public charters to all its policies — creates a lose-lose dynamic in which the school system has to spend time and money managing charters, which in turn directly undermines public charters' ability to achieve the innovations they were authorized to implement in the first place.

I challenge Baltimore City Schools, traditional public school principals, and public charters to band together to:

1. Develop a bottom-up budgeting process for the school system — the central office should administer detailed annual surveys to all principals in which principals express which expenses they want to pay for at the school level and which ones they want to tackle collectively through the central office. Of course there are some expenses that the central office has to handle, such as on legal compliance, but the central office should constantly challenge itself to minimize those "off the top" costs. For instance, the Teaching and Learning office and Network Teams should exist only to the extent that principals specifically ask for resources from those offices. Results-Based Budgeting in Oakland could be one possible model for this approach.

2. Partner with state legislators to make improvements to the Maryland Charter Law that establish the common-sense authorizing relationship between the school system and public charters that exists almost everywhere else in the country and that doesn't force the school system to provide services for which it has already given funding to public charters to provide themselves.

3. Encourage effective fiscal management and empower all principals to be true managers of their schools. Funding for public schools that is not spent in a given school year should "roll over" to be available to those same schools on top of their allocations for the subsequent year.

Equitable funding and better outcomes for all children will not be achieved by a zero-sum tug of war. They will be achieved by collective action for better policies for all schools. MarylandCAN stands ready to work with Baltimore City Schools, principals, and public charter operators to establish better policies for schools, which in turn will achieve better outcomes for all children.

Jason Botel, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of MarylandCAN.

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

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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