New efforts to change Maryland's charter school law, buoyed by a recent report from the Abell Foundation, appear to be a solution in search of a problem. Maryland is among the best states in academic performance and achievement. The public school system here has been applauded by observers across the nation. Furthermore, when we examine the data we see that on the whole, charters do not perform better than high quality neighborhood public schools. This is even evident in municipalities that have been booming with charter school expansion.
Recently the legislature commissioned a study on charter schools that came back with a particular set of recommendations that include expanding charters in the state. However a review of the study by the Maryland Department of Legislative services found those recommendations largely invalid because the study was, in their words, incomplete. Clear and critical questions remain about issues, such as per-pupil funding, which went completely unaddressed in the study and only serve to add more reason to be skeptical about any wholesale changes to the state's charter school laws until questions such as these are answered.
What charter operators are asking for in the state of Maryland attacks the core and fabric of teacher standards and collective bargaining. If, for example, charter operators did not have to abide by Baltimore City Public School System standards, that would strike a mighty blow against the effectiveness of the collective bargaining unit. Many of the charter operators say they have no intention of dismantling or weakening the union, but that is effectively what they would be doing. Charters with the ability to directly negotiate with teachers would ultimately result in a "race to the bottom" for teacher wages. We are also finding charters wanting the autonomy to bring on teachers who do not meet the standards of certification that is demanded of teachers now. Why would less qualified teachers be good for Maryland students and families?
The proposed charter school operator expansion would render school systems across the state powerless in many ways. Charter school operators with independent authority undermine the purpose of the school system. Charter operators don't have the accountability to the public that many school systems do. To relegate the task we ask of an entire school board to each charter operator is surely problematic. Essentially they will have public funds but no way to answer to the public.
Our newly inaugurated Gov. Larry Hogan has yet to visit any Baltimore City public schools (where a majority of the Maryland charter schools currently exist, and where any expansion would undoubtedly start). I am confident the governor would not want to offer or suggest any policy changes before first examining, in person, the students and teachers those changes would most affect. I invite the governor to come to Baltimore and visit one of our schools doing important work — namely one of our community schools that is providing wrap-around services to the individual student and the larger community that school serves. Community schools are filling a vital void in our young people's lives by offering a range of resources right there within the school. These services can range from mental health services to out-of-school activities and even GED classes for parents.
Charter schools are an important piece in the puzzle of how to best educate our state's children. However legislation that is not based on substantial data that proves changes will do no harm is simply misguided policy. The way charters operate under current state law is, most importantly, effective for our young people but also fair for our teachers. Any change to that system will be a solution to a problem that simply doesn't exist.
Marietta English is president of the Baltimore Teachers Union and American Federation of Teachers-Maryland. She also serves as the president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators. She can be reached at MEnglish@Baltu.org.