A year's not enough

News that the KIPP Ujima Village Academy has reached a compromise with the Baltimore teachers union that will allow it to continue operating for at least one more year should be cause for celebration among the school's students, parents and staff. The West Baltimore charter school is one of the highest performing middle schools in the state, and it has done an extraordinary job helping poor and minority students succeed academically. But to make sure that success continues, KIPP needs more than a one-year deal.

Ujima Village Academy is part of a network of charter schools created in 1994 by two Teach for America alumni who believed that traditional public schools were badly failing America's young people. There are now 80 KIPP schools nationwide. The fundamental principles of the KIPP model -- an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program -- are based on high expectations, a belief that all children can succeed regardless of socioeconomic background, and a focus on giving teachers and principals autonomy and holding them accountable for the results.

But the key element that distinguishes KIPP from other charter programs is its extended school day that keeps students busy from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., coupled with weekend and summer programs that help students retain what they have learned. Teachers at KIPP schools work, on average, about a third more hours each year than those at regular public schools, and they are paid about 20 percent more in salary and benefits.

That, however, is the basis of the union's complaint. Unlike teachers in many other states, charter school teachers in Maryland must belong to the union and abide by the pay scales in the union contract. Based on the number of hours they work, the union calculated that KIPP teachers should be earning 33 percent more in salary and benefits under the standard contract -- even though all the teachers there had volunteered to work for what the school was offering. This year, KIPP was forced to shorten its school day by an hour, lay off administrative staff and cut art and music programs to meet the union requirement. And officials feared they might have had to cut even deeper next year, raising the question of whether the KIPP model could survive in Baltimore.

There's little doubt that KIPP has been one of Baltimore's success stories. On standardized tests, its students consistently outscore their peers in other city schools, as well as those in wealthier suburban jurisdictions. KIPP eighth-graders are regularly accepted into the city's top public high schools, and several have won scholarships to elite private high schools.

KIPP's teachers have chosen to work in some of the toughest areas of the city because they believe the program can make a real difference in students' lives. It would be a shame to see their efforts thwarted by the union that claims to represent their interests. The compromise allows the school to resume a full schedule of 9-1/2-hour days plus weekend and summer programs, with a nominal one-half of 1 percent salary increase.

Still, that agreement is only good for one year. Ultimately, charter school advocates must look to the legislature to change Maryland's law so that successful schools have a lot more flexibility to establish pay scales and work rules that fit their particular needs. Otherwise, KIPP administrators could find themselves back at the bargaining table a year from now to negotiate the same contract issues they just resolved all over again.

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