"If I ever forget myself with that girl, I'd like to remember it."
That's a Fred Astaire line. Let it sink in, people. It's clever.
When it comes to education policy in Maryland, you might say that the General Assembly forgot itself in 2003 when it passed legislation authorizing charter schools and that it's not sure these days how much of that time it would like to remember. But the legislature would do well to jog its memory, and not just because charter schools are doing a good job of educating students in Maryland. Serious federal money is at stake as well.
The 2003 charter law was a grudging surrender to a Republican governor in a heavily Democratic state. It was grudging because the law didn't say much more than there shall be charter schools - and what little more it did say was that there shall be union work rules in charter schools, and there shall only be charter schools authorized by local school boards.
But maybe that's OK, because the charter school model - really just public schools with site-based management - has, on the whole, worked for the Maryland schoolchildren who have had the good fortune to attend one. There are more than 30 charter schools spread over five counties in the state, and every one has a waiting list. Certain charter schools, notably some in Baltimore City neighborhoods that sooner bring to mind an episode of "The Wire" than notions of academic excellence, are outscoring their suburban neighbors on standardized tests.
However, the educational "haves" in the state - the higher-performing counties - are mistaken if they assume that charter schools are for the have-nots, that they represent a remedial fix for low-performing districts. An Anne Arundel County charter middle school, despite teaching a disproportionate number of the county's low-income students, significantly outperformed its Anne Arundel County peers on standardized math and reading tests this year. And a charter school in Frederick County that enrolls mostly middle-class kids received more than 300 applications last year for 20 slots.
So how did charter schools produce all this good news? Depending on whom you ask, you might hear that these schools bring out more of the talent and passion of teachers and principals because of the freedom to experiment and to adapt best practices without asking permission. Or you might hear about the culture among charter schools of involving parents and other volunteers in the daily life of the school.
You might also hear that charter schools attract a different kind of teacher: those seeking more professional satisfaction and flexibility than district-run schools allow. A charter school operator said that for every teaching vacancy in the schools operated by his organization, it received 80 to 100 applications. Most, he said, were from teachers working in traditional school districts.
A more famous line from Fred Astaire's day is "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backward and in high heels." To some extent, charter schools do everything district-run schools do, except backward and in high heels: Charter schools have functioned - and in most cases thrived - despite unpredictable funding, hostile unions and sometimes suspicious district personnel.
But things are getting better. The funding wars, fated always to remain at a simmer, nowadays center as much on accounting issues as disagreements over total dollars. And while some in the educational establishment still view public charter schools through the either/or prism of district-run schools, an increasing number view them as integral to an active landscape of school systems reinventing themselves.
So what did the General Assembly forget? That charter schools need school buildings. Currently, charter school funding formulas do not provide money for facilities, so charter schools not lucky enough to find a surplus school building must use per-pupil funding to pay for their physical plant. The General Assembly, therefore, should change bond finance rules and other capital funding mechanisms to ensure that charter schools can tap into capital funding sources as the equals of district-run schools.
And what do charter schools want the General Assembly to remember? That the concept of a charter school is only meaningful if the school enjoys meaningful autonomy. That requires that charter schools have a say in the assignment of principals and teachers.
Under its Race to the Top initiative, the Obama administration has dangled huge amounts of money to states that, among other factors, ensure that charter schools are allowed to function autonomously and have proper facilities funding.
Whether or not the General Assembly would like to remember what it did in 2003, families whose children attend charter schools, and those on the waiting list to attend them, would like it to remember in 2010 that Maryland's chances in the Race to the Top sweepstakes depend in good measure on seeing to the facilities funding and charter school autonomy issues.
David Borinsky is president of the Maryland Charter School Network. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.