The Baltimore school system could be forced to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars - and eventually millions - to its charter schools under a ruling issued yesterday by the state's highest court.
In a 7-2 decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the right of charter schools to receive as much money per pupil as regular public schools spend on their students. When the new academic year begins next month, Baltimore will have 22 charter schools serving about 5,400 children, more than in the rest of the state combined.
Charter schools are public schools that operate independently. In Maryland, they receive public funds as well as services such as special education and food. Yesterday's ruling allows charters to opt for cash in place of those services whenever they choose.
"Services are not prohibited; they just cannot be forced on the charter schools at the whim of the [local school] boards," retired Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote for the majority in an opinion addressing separate charter funding lawsuits in Baltimore and Prince George's County. Judge Irma S. Raker wrote a dissent, joined by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.
The ruling is being hailed by local and national charter school advocates.
"It's a great decision, and it's in keeping with what we believe is and should be the law of the land: Money should follow children," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group that gave Maryland a "D" in its annual rankings of state charter laws last year. "Children are entitled to equitable public funding regardless of the kind of school they attend."
The court's decision has already spurred political opposition and calls for legislative action to undo it.
"It was a bad decision financially," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat who has twice unsuccessfully introduced legislation to curb spending on charters. "I think it's going to result in children at charter schools receiving more than children at traditional public schools."
In Baltimore, charter advocates are awaiting the response of Andres Alonso, the new chief executive officer of the city schools. Through a spokeswoman, Alonso declined to comment on the ruling yesterday, saying he is studying it.
The state's charter law entitles charter schools to receive funding "commensurate" with that of regular schools but does not define what that entails. Yesterday's ruling addresses the resulting complications:
"No one can calculate a precise dollar amount disbursed to the X middle school in order to determine a 'commensurate' amount that should be disbursed to the Y public charter middle school, because there is no such disbursement. The whole comparative framework, therefore - what the disbursement to the public charter schools should be commensurate with - requires interpretation. It is not even close to being clear on its face."
At the same time, the ruling affirms the definition set by the state school board to determine a per pupil rate: A school system's total budget is divided by its number of students, and 2 percent is deducted for central administration costs.
Raker and Bell disputed the state school board's authority to set such a rate.
City charter operators provided varying figures yesterday on how much they pay for central administration services, ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent. Yesterday's ruling means they can try to reclaim deductions exceeding 2 percent. The two city charter schools involved in the lawsuit, City Neighbors and Patterson Park, are likely to seek retroactive compensation for the last school year.
In addition, by affirming a lower court's decision "with costs," the ruling means that the city school board might have to pay the charters' legal fees, about $100,000 for Patterson Park.
Last academic year, the school system's budget contained the equivalent of more than $13,000 per child for all of its public schools, though not all of that was directly spent on children. The city's charter schools received $5,859 per child in cash and the rest in services.
Under a formula the city school board approved in May, the charters will receive $8,415 per child in cash in the coming school year but will assume employee benefits, a major responsibility that the system previously covered.
The formula is costing the system about $2 million more than it had budgeted for charter schools in the new fiscal year. How much it will need beyond that depends on what services the charters ask to cash in.
With a new school year near, most charter operators are unlikely to seek an immediate overhaul of the way they provide services, said Bobbi Macdonald, president of the board governing City Neighbors.
"We wouldn't want to cash in for everything, and we're not talking about a huge difference in what we're already getting," Macdonald said. "We are talking about not being at the whim of the school board anymore."
At Patterson Park, officials want to get cash in place of special-education services as soon as possible, even though that could spark another battle in a decades-old special-education lawsuit.
Bill Wilson, the school's executive director, said the system provides Patterson Park with the equivalent of 2 1/2 special education teachers, a part-time social worker, a part-time psychologist and a part-time speech pathologist.
If the school received about $11,000 in cash for each of its 50 disabled students, Wilson said, "we could certainly provide more special-education services to our population than what we're getting now."