KIPP in limbo

One of the hottest debates in education today is whether charter schools do a better job serving poor and minority children than traditional public schools. That argument may be far from over nationally, but at least in the case of Baltimore's KIPP Ujima Village Academy, the question has been settled. Test scores of the school's 370 fifth- through eighth-graders consistently rank among the highest in the state, and 85 percent of the kids eventually go on to college. That's better than many top-performing suburban schools. Moreover, KIPP has managed to achieve its astonishing success rate despite the fact that four out of five of its students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify them for free and reduced-priced school meals.

So given its outstanding record, why is one of the state's stellar examples of charter school success now facing the possibility that it may have to shut its doors at the end of this school year?

There's no question that high expectations, coupled with the belief that all children can excel regardless of socioeconomic background, have allowed KIPP — an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program — to do an extraordinary job helping its students succeed academically. But the school has been involved in a long-running dispute over pay rates with the Baltimore teachers union, and if it isn't resolved over the next few weeks it could cripple KIPP's ability to continue its mission — or even force the school out of Baltimore.

At the core of the dispute is a key element of the KIPP philosophy, which is that kids learn better if they spend more time with their teachers in the classroom. For that reason, KIPP's school day starts at 7:30 a.m. and runs until 5 p.m. — about 21/2 hours longer than the regular public school day. In addition, KIPP teachers work more days a year than their public school counterparts — 217 as opposed to 190 — to accommodate weekend and summer classes that help students retain what they learn.

KIPP instructors belong to the Baltimore Teachers Union, which negotiates pay scales and working conditions for both public and charter school teachers. But KIPP instructors put in about a third more hours on the job than their public school colleagues, though they are only paid about 20 percent more in salary.

And that's the rub: The union argues KIPP instructors should earn a full 33 percent more than regular public school teachers in order to reflect the actual number of extra hours they work. The school, however, insists it can't afford to pay its teachers that much without cutting essential staff and programs — and that in any case its teachers have already agreed to accept the smaller 20 percent increase because they believe the trade-off is worth if it allows them to make a real difference in the lives of their students.

For the last year, the school has been operating under a temporary agreement with the union that preserves the status quo. But that's set to expire this year, and KIPP Baltimore Executive Director Jason Botel says the school will have to close if it can't reach a long-term accommodation with union officials that allows it to keep its commitments to KIPP's students, parents and staff. As things stand, KIPP teachers don't know whether they'll have a job next year, and parents worry their kids won't have a school to attend in the fall. Mr. Botel has been working with union officials since February to resolve the crisis, so far without success.

If all else fails, a bill sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg and Sen. Catherine Pugh in the General Assembly this year could allow KIPP teachers to vote on their working conditions, including their pay for the extended hours. The legislation would give the school the power to ask teachers to amend the current contract to allow them to accept a 20 percent increase rather than the 33 percent increase the union is demanding. If 80 percent of the teachers agreed, the school could continue offering its extended school day and year. Hearings on the proposed legislation are scheduled in Annapolis on Wednesday, and we urge lawmakers to pass the measure during the current General Assembly session in order to ensure that KIPP can continue operating in Baltimore.

Maryland has a relatively weak charter law as it is, and ultimately, broader reforms are needed to help innovative alternatives to standard public schools to flourish — for example, the state needs to prevent local school boards from vetoing the creation of new charters and to provide some capital funding to help these schools get off the ground. It would take time to build support for those reforms, but KIPP's need is urgent. Mr. Botel says that without a long-term agreement, he has difficulty raising money and financing needed renovations of KIPP's building. Without a permanent solution, he says, the school will be forced to leave Baltimore.

Public employee unions across the country are feeling under siege these days. But forcing the closure of a school where innovation and imagination are producing astounding results that could become a model for reform efforts nationwide, which the Baltimore union seems bent on, is no way to win back the public's affection, and it stands in contrast to the union's approval last year of one of the most reform-minded labor agreements in the nation. The ability of teachers in any given school to approve different working conditions than the districtwide standard is a key component of the agreement, but the contract does not extend that flexibility to matters of pay.

While we understand the union's concern for strictly adhering to every provision of the contract it negotiated for its members, lawmakers must also look at the bigger picture and allow themselves to be guided by what is best for Baltimore's children, who clearly are flourishing at KIPP.

Moreover, no one is being asked to teach there who doesn't share the school's philosophy or is unwilling to make the extra effort its extended day requires; on the contrary, the staff seems enthusiastic and hopeful that the transformative work they have begun can continue, even if it means being paid slightly less than union scale for the extra hours they put in. Money can't buy that kind of dedication, and Baltimore is lucky to have such professionals. Lawmakers ought to be doing everything possible to encourage them to keep it up.