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Money for charter schools

The Baltimore Sun

Using one of Baltimore's most successful charter schools as a backdrop, state schools Superintendent Nancy S, Grasmick announced yesterday that Maryland will receive an $18.2 million federal grant and much of it will be used to start charter schools.

"We asked for $18.2 million and got every penny of it," Grasmick told an enthusiastic audience that included students and teachers at the Crossroads School, which is in Fells Point and run by Living Classrooms, a nonprofit group. Maryland is one of 10 states chosen to tap some of the $284 million in federal money set aside to nurture charter schools, which are public schools that operate independently under contracts with local school boards.

Most of the grant money will help groups wanting to open new charter schools after the fall of 2008. The funds will be dispensed through a competitive process, with the first round of applications due in November, state education officials said.

About $900,000 of the three-year grant also could be used to provide training to the state's existing charter schools. According to state education officials, Maryland has 23 charter schools, 16 of which are in Baltimore. About 6,000 students attend the state's charter schools.

The new federal money will come just as money from a similar 2004 federal grant of $13 million had begun to run dry.

Grasmick said the latest grant affirms that the state is on the right track with its "cautious approach" to starting charter schools.

"We want to be careful about what schools we choose to open," Grasmick said. "We competed with a lot of states, like Arizona and California, where dozens of charter schools closed within a couple of years because of various challenges, which left children and families hanging. A majority of our charter schools are doing very well and that's because our districts have been so discerning."

Over the past 15 years, the push for charter schools has spawned a nationwide movement.

Yet even as state and federal officials have heralded their success, more than 400 of them have folded around the country, mostly for financial mismanagement and business inexperience.

Joni Berman, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, said she hopes the new grant money will help new charter schools avoid some of those mistakes.

"This money is really helpful," said Berman, whose nonprofit group provides support and training to new and existing charter schools. "We want to make sure they're thorough in their planning and that they can open successfully without many of the opening jitters that some schools have faced. Most of these groups have never opened schools before."

The new money comes as criticism persists over a state charter school law that some say hinders the success of the innovative schools -- which are publicly funded but given greater latitude for curriculum and policies.

"These schools are resource-starved, so, if they can receive more money, that's great," said Lauren Morando Rhim, author of a University of Maryland study shared with the General Assembly last December that criticized the law for its vagueness.

"I have concerns that the law doesn't give them enough autonomy to live up to charge to be innovative," she said. "Charter schools in Maryland find themselves in a difficult position of being expected to do things differently, but then not being given the autonomy they need to do things differently."

Despite concerns over the law, dozens of groups have pushed to open charter schools.

Nine have been approved to open this fall, with another set to open in 2008. Another 15 groups have applications pending before school boards across the state.

They are encouraged, Grasmick said, by the success stories of schools like Crossroads, which opened five years ago with 50 sixth-graders and has since grown to 150 students in grades 6-8. The students, many of whom came to Crossroads learning two or three years below grade level, now earn the top scores on state tests in seventh- and eighth-grade reading and math. About 98 percent of the students go on to college-preparatory high schools.

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