For the first time since charter schools opened in Baltimore, officials are confronting the complex issue of whether those schools should lose their right to operate when they produce poor academic results.
The city school board deadlocked this week over schools CEO Andrés Alonso's proposal to revoke the charter of Dr. Rayner Browne Academy, an elementary/middle school in West Baltimore with poor test results, in an unusually open and heated discussion in front of hundreds of charter school parents and teachers.
In a school system that has opened 27 charters since 2005 and at least a dozen other independently operated new schools, the question of how good those schools have to be to continue operating could affect a growing number of students.
"We need to decide whether there are going to be average charter schools," said school board member David Stone. "Now is the day of reckoning" for the group of operators who believed they could do a better job than the regular public schools and were given the opportunity to open charters, he said.
At the heart of the debate is the question of how long the school board will allow a low-performing charter school to stay open, said Stone, who is the former head of the city's charter schools office.
Four members supported revoking Rayner Browne's charter and three were against it. A majority vote of the full nine-member board is needed. The board will vote again March 9, when the two absent members are there.
The board voted to accept Alonso's recommendations on the other nine schools whose charters were up for renewal. Four charters, which are the highest-performing and which the system has the most confidence in, were given five-year contracts; another five schools that the system is less confident about received two-year renewals.
Charter schools are independently operated but receive public funding. The school board must approve applications to operate a charter and periodically review their progress.
But some board members believe there is not enough consistency in the process. While one school with improving test scores was given a chance to continue for five years, another one that was progressing as well was given a two-year contract.
In addition, board members questioned why the improving City Springs Elementary/Middle School and Collington Square Elementary/Middle received contracts for two, and not five, years. The renewal process is considered a distraction for schools because it takes a lot of time and preparation.
Stone suggested, though, that the board will have to make a policy decision on how many times it can give a school two more years to improve "because we don't have the guts to shut them down."
George VanHook, a board member, said the board should have a lengthy discussion on the issue and not be afraid to go against Alonso's recommendations.
Alonso defended his position, saying that his staff had spent many hours poring over data, some of which were not shared in the short public presentation, and that their positions were well thought out. While he is confident that some of the schools are making good progress, he said, there are still problems, such as student performance. He could not recommend a school like City Springs, with middle school pass rates in some subjects that were below 20 percent, be given a five-year contract, he told the board.
Board member Jerrelle Francois said there should be improvement in every subject and grade for a charter to receive renewal. "In the life of a child, two years is a long time," she said.
While Rayner Browne has not been doing well, board member Anirban Basu said he was not convinced that the school would get enough attention under the district's control. Unlike newly created charters, which would be closed if the charter was revoked, Rayner Browne would revert to a regular city school.
One of the underlying questions in the discussion is how to judge several schools operated by the nonprofit Baltimore Curriculum Project, which received contracts two years ago to turn several low-performing city schools into charters, including Rayner Browne. Nationally, educators struggle with how to successfully turn around poor schools and believe starting a new school from scratch is far easier.
The board has to consider what standard the schools should be held to and how fast a school should be expected to improve, said Laura Weeldreyer, city schools deputy chief of staff.
"These are complex and incredibly important decisions," she said.
In addition to City Springs and Collington Square, the schools given two-year contracts are: Coppin Academy, Baltimore International Academy, and Bluford Drew Jemison Science Technology Engineering Math Academy.
The schools that were given five-year contracts are: Independence, Wolf Street Academy, Southwest Baltimore Charter and Inner Harbor East Academy for Young Scholars.