More choices for parents and students

Tweaking the law could make it easier to open charter schools in Md.

We're heartened by Gov.-elect Larry Hogan's recent remarks suggesting he wants to make charter schools a priority of his administration. Maryland currently has one of the weakest charter school laws in the nation, which has left parents here with fewer choices for educating their children than in many other states. Mr. Hogan says he wants to tweak the law to make easier to open and operate such schools in Maryland, and that can only be good for the state's K-12 students and their families.

The governor-elect's views are wholly in line with a recent report from the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy recommending the state create an independent board to consider and approve applications to open new charter schools. Currently that is something only local school boards can do, and the result has been that many worthy proposals have repeatedly been turned down because local boards see them as competing with the public schools rather than complementing them.

The one exception has been the reform-minded board in Baltimore City, which has been willing to embrace charters as a means to address what has rightly been viewed as a crisis in public education here. Consequently, of the 47 charter schools in the state, 33 are in Baltimore City. There is just one in Baltimore County, two in Anne Arundel and none in the rest of the Baltimore suburbs.

But Baltimore City is not the only jurisdiction with schools in need of improvement. There are students throughout the state who could benefit from the innovative programs and instructional strategies charters offer. The Schaefer Center report found that charter schools perform at least as well as regular public schools and even slightly outshine them in some areas. Moreover, the point of charters is not just whether they perform better in the aggregate but whether they offer models of education that are better suited to individual children and families than traditional schools. Mr. Hogan is certainly right when he says the state as a whole isn't doing as much as it could to take advantage of such benefits. A change in the law not only would allow Maryland to take a bigger bite out of the achievement gap but also could attract more federal and private school reform dollars.

Besides the issue of chartering authority, Maryland needs to consider changes to help with the schools' facility needs. Unlike most other states, Maryland's law doesn't require local school boards to fund the construction or renovation of the buildings charter schools use; often those costs have to come out of the school's operating budget. Jurisdictions that already have excess capacity as a result of children leaving the public schools for charters ought to be required to allow those facilities to be used by charter school students rather than remain underutilized.

The charters should be given more flexibility in selecting and evaluating their staffs. Charter schools in Maryland currently have principals and teachers who are assigned to them by the local school boards, but that robs schools of the ability to find the best personnel for their particular models of education.

It might also be a good idea to allow local school boards and charter schools to establish admission policies based on need. Current law requires all applicants be treated equally through a lottery process, which means schools can't give first priority to certain groups of students, such as English language learners, children with disabilities or disadvantaged students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Some schools want to reach out to these students, and the state should consider allowing a two-stage lottery with the first open only to their target group and a second open to everyone else.

Finally, Maryland's charter school law makes every charter school subject to every state and local education, regulation and policy followed by the regular public schools. But most states recognize that charters often need greater flexibility than that requirement permits, particularly in terms of auditing and accounting procedures. Maryland's degree of oversight has its benefits, but the state needs to re-examine just what requirements the charters should be forced to follow and which they shouldn't given their unique financial and governance structure.

A stronger charter school law would expand the range of choices available to parents and children at little if any additional cost to the state. Mr. Hogan's got the right idea that this is an area where relatively small changes could produce significant educational benefits; the legislature should work with him to accomplish them.

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