The charter fallacy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AS A RESULT of legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law two years ago, local school boards across Maryland will begin the year reviewing proposals from citizens groups to establish charter schools.

These advocates will be seeking approval for their contracts - charters - to govern their operations. Ironically, school boards will be asked to transfer their own public dollars to support these independent schools. While all school systems will be affected, the most financially strapped system, Baltimore City, stands to lose the most.

The good news is that Maryland is one of the last states to approve legislation authorizing charter schools and, as a result, has nearly 15 years of experience from the rest of the country to draw upon. The bad news is that the experience hasn't been that positive.

A charter school is a public school organized by a group of teachers, parents or other interested people and approved by a chartering agency. In 2003, Maryland became the 40th state to enact charter school legislation. Under the law, local school boards grant charters. If a Maryland group seeking a charter is denied at the local level, it can appeal the decision to the state board.

Theoretically, charters are free of the red tape and regulations governing public schools. But charter schools in Maryland will be required to hire the same qualified instructors as public schools, be tested on the same voluntary state curriculum, face the same regulations regarding special education and be subject to the same federal testing requirements for the No Child Left Behind law.

The charter school movement started in Minnesota in 1991. Today, there are more than 600,000 students attending more than 3,000 charter schools in 40 states. Initially hailed by conservatives for offering a free-market alternative to the monopoly held by public schools, the movement had the support of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But as the number of these schools has grown nationwide, many jurisdictions are having second thoughts. The Buffalo school board voted in November to impose a one-year moratorium on allowing more of the independently owned schools to be established. A group of parents and teachers in Ohio is challenging the constitutionality of the state's charter school program. And last fall, Washington state voters rejected a recently passed state law establishing charter schools.

As the independent school movement has grown nationwide, management and performance problems are surfacing in a number of schools.

In California, the state Department of Education and two county education offices are investigating the operator of 60 schools, which serve 10,000 students, over management and fiscal irregularities. In Missouri, the Kansas City School District recently took over operations of the Westport Charter School, citing poor academic performance.

There are two critical questions local school boards will have to answer before giving final approval to charter applications.

The first is whether student achievement will improve under charters.

So far, the results have not been impressive. Western Michigan University compared the test scores of charter school and public school students in Pennsylvania and Michigan. In both states, students in public schools scored better. Last month, the federal Education Department released its evaluation analyzing the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test given to fourth-graders. This, too, confirmed earlier studies showing that children in charter schools do not perform as well as those in regular public schools.

The second question for local boards to answer is how their decision to approve charter school applications will affect the other students in their systems.

Charter schools are still public schools, and their funding comes from taxpayer dollars. Since funding is based on enrollment, when a child leaves a public school to attend a charter, the allocated money follows the child. This adds to the financial strain already facing many districts. The schools also lose the support of active parents who shift their energies to the new charter schools.

A research study in 2001 of 49 school districts in five states found that every school district reported impacts from charter schools; moreover, half of the districts reported their budgets were harmed by taking students and revenue away from the districts' regular schools.

Currently, 50 charter applications are in the works, according to the state Department of Education - 18 of them in Baltimore City. In this first round of applications, the cost to the city could be as high as $15 million to $20 million, based on an estimate of each charter school enrolling 250 pupils. We do not know what this will mean for the 85,000 students left in the system and not enrolled in charter schools.

Until we learn more, the General Assembly should consider what other states have done in limiting the number of charter schools and enact legislation to allow local school boards to take a slower, more deliberate approach.

James W. Campbell, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, is a member of the Baltimore City school board.

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