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Doing the math

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's Court of Appeals has agreed with the State Board of Education that charter schools are entitled to a much larger sum of money than school boards, particularly Baltimore's Board of School Commissioners, think is fair. The ruling could cost the city school system hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensatory funds. It may also inspire the General Assembly to come up with more realistic funding for charter schools.

In the meantime, a more practical solution might be for Baltimore's school board members and new schools CEO Andres Alonso to sit down with members of the state board and try to convince them that a recent funding formula offered to charter schools by the city school system is satisfactory even under the court's ruling.

State law requires that charter schools be approved by local school boards and funded at a level that is "commensurate" with what other public schools receive. But the meaning was not well spelled out, forcing charter schools into often hard negotiations with local school boards.

Two charter schools that were dissatisfied with the amounts offered by the Baltimore school system for 2005 and 2006 took the matter to the state board. Now a 7-2 majority of the Court of Appeals has endorsed the state board's troubling decision, which found that Baltimore charter schools were entitled to nearly $11,000 per pupil, based on a rough calculation of all federal, state and local dollars, divided by the total number of students, with a 2 percent deduction for administrative costs.

The 2 percent deduction is not realistic, given the many centralized functions for which a major school system is responsible. Without rewarding a top-heavy bureaucracy, a 5 percent or even 10 percent administrative deduction is not unreasonable. The court decision gives charter schools money, on a per pupil basis, for general costs such as transportation, special education, free and reduced-price meals and funding for students from low-income families or who don't speak English, so long as there are students who qualify. It also rightly gives the charters more flexibility to accept those costs in cash rather than in-kind services for which the charters would have to reimburse the school system.

Baltimore has offered charter schools about $8,400 in the coming school year to cover most of those costs, and city school officials would have to convince the state board that the offer is acceptable. That's why the latest ruling begs for some clarification by the General Assembly, which has not gotten far with proposals that offered more-realistic calculations for charters. After all, the money for charter schools is likely to come out of money allocated for traditional schools. Pitting charter schools, which should be prized for their independence and different approaches to learning, against traditional schools is not the way to help students.

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