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Yikes! A charter-friendly superintendent

[This is my column for the Local Living section of March 4, 2010.]

Zina McGowan-Thomas, the energetic public information officer for St. Mary's County public schools, sends me many announcements and news releases that I am tempted to delete, as I do most e-mails from local school districts. I know this is a bad idea, because sometimes you will find, in the smallest bulletin, something astonishing, like such as the e-mail she sent me a few weeks ago about the Chesapeake Public Charter School.

She told me and her long list of contacts that the school was about to have an open house. Ho-hum. All schools have open houses. Wait a minute: McGowan-Thomas works for a public school district with 27 schools and 17,000 students. Her job is to spread information about them, not a charter school. To most public school employees in the United States, charter schools are the enemy. Finding McGowan-Thomas promoting a charter school event is like seeing your local post office displaying a FedEx poster.

Charter schools are independent public schools that use tax dollars but do not have to follow a lot of school district rules. They can have different hours, different textbooks, different teaching methods and whatever else appeals to the teachers and parents who have gotten permission to set them up.

Charter schools and traditional public schools are usually at war. Many educational researchers look for data to make charter schools look bad, or traditional public schools look bad, depending on what side they are on. Traditional public school people say charters are stealing funding and students. Charter school people say traditional schools are crippled by large, unresponsive bureaucracies. As I pointed out here a few weeks ago, most school districts in the Washington suburbs shun charter schools, refusing to authorize them because they don't want the competition.

But St. Mary's has a different attitude. Does being named after the Mother of God make you nicer? I don't think so. The key factor is that the St. Mary's school board hired Michael J. Martirano as superintendent five years ago. The county Web site says he came from Howard County, but he sounds like he is from an undiscovered planet.

Martirano helped the organizers of the Chesapeake Public Charter School work through the lengthy application process. He refers to the school as "my charter."
"My one driving mantra was to ensure that they would be successful and that this would not be viewed as an experiment," he told me.

This is not normal behavior for Washington area school districts. Montgomery County killed off a middle school charter application submitted by some of its best teachers more than a decade ago. Nobody there has dared try that again. Anne Arundel County found a way to strangle a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) school, part of the most successful charter school network in the country, by denying it a chance to expand into a county building with much empty space.

Stuart Gibson, a Fairfax County School Board member I admire, wrote a letter to The Washington Post recently objecting to an editorial saying his county was unfriendly to charters. Then he admitted that county officials talked the one group interested in a charter into accepting "a program within the existing public schools that uses essential elements of the proposal and effectively serves three times as many students for the same money." We will never know whether the group could have done an even better job with a different approach on their own.

Martirano, Maryland's 2009 Superintendent of the Year, said he thinks the families of his county are entitled to a wide choice of schools. He has three science, technology, engineering and math academies. He has a global and international studies program and an academy of finance. He has an alternative academy for potential dropouts. And he has his charter school.

I wish his attitude were catching, but that does not appear to be the case. St. Mary's is a long drive from Fairfax and Montgomery counties. It is a shame we have to go that far to find a school district that understands its job is to serve its children, not protect its prerogatives.


Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 3, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Michael J. Martirano, Stuart Gibson, charter vs. regular public schools, charter-friendly superintendent, killing charters in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties  
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Comments

Jay,

I assume that you know that the US Postal Service has an affiliation agreement with FedEx. :-) (Sorry if I missed sarcasm).

My biggest issue with charters is not that they siphon students exactly, but that they can be selective and can remove students who don't fit in with their programs. In addition, charters almost always have more involved parents and often that is a condition for students to enroll.

I feel pretty confident that almost any school would do significantly better with the ability to cherry pick the best students and remove disruptive students or students with disabilities.

As the charter school movement becomes more successful, you will see a slide in public schools that may have little to do with public schools exactly, and more to do with the fact that larger percentages of their students will be kids charters wouldn't take.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 4, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Wyrm1 said: "Charters can be selective and can remove students who don't fit in with their programs. In addition, charters almost always have more involved parents and often that is a condition for students to enroll."

His statements are untrue. Charters are required by law in every state that I am familiar with to take all students who apply, and if they are oversubscribed to select students by random lottery. They are not allowed to remove students "who don't fit in with their programs." They have the same tools that regular public schools do to suspend or expel students who hurt other students or who become intolerably disruptive, and what data we have suggest they don't expel any more students than regular public schools do.

I have seen no data suggesting that charters "almost always have more involved parents." As I said above, it would be unlawful to "make that a condition for students to enroll."

Some people argue that because charter parents choose their schools, they must be more involved. But regular school parents choose their schools too. They choose where to live, which is in part a school choice. They often have a choice of more than one regular school in their area. Like charter school parents they have to show up and fill out the paperwork to get their child into a regular public school. Many of them volunteer in and give extra support to the neighborhood school. The level of involvement in my experience is pretty similar to what you find at charters, who have plenty of parents who don't get involved at all.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 4, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Jay, he is right.

Or as you last post summed it up " Mathews Wrong "

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 4, 2010 10:52 PM | Report abuse

"Charters are required by law in every state that I am familiar with to take all students who apply, and if they are oversubscribed to select students by random lottery. They are not allowed to remove students "who don't fit in with their programs." "

Of course they are allowed to remove students who don't fit in. Moreover, they benefit from self-selection in the application and dropout process.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 5, 2010 1:09 AM | Report abuse

District schools can also remove students who are disruptive. They just don't have any incentive to do so whereas charters that allow kids to disrupt learning may end up extinct.

Oh, and that self-selection process? It's going to be kids with problems who are going to be the candidates for charters since it's the unusual parent who wants to take a kid out of the school in which they're doing well.

Posted by: allenm1 | March 5, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

This is not normal behavior for Washington area school districts. Montgomery County killed off a middle school charter application submitted by some of its best teachers more than a decade ago. Nobody there has dared try that again.
~~~~
Correction - someone is trying right now:

http://parentscoalitionmc.blogspot.com/2010/02/global-garden-public-charter-school.html

and The Gazette already wrote about it.

Posted by: jzsartucci | March 6, 2010 12:44 AM | Report abuse

The common complaint about charter schools that I hear is, 'They are private schools taking public school money and the public schools are being robbed!'

My town has a charter school. It does just fine. Students are picked by lottery, of those who apply. The issue of whether the charter school is a 'private' school is debated every single year in the local paper. The same points are made by both sides and it doesn't make a bit of difference.

My impression is that the charter school performs the same as the public school in most areas and better in others. Quite often, a change or advantage offered by the charter school is pondered and then adapted by its competitor, the public school. The key word here is 'competitor'.

The charter school is smaller and, in my opinion, it's harder for a bully to thrive - important when 'bullying' is a concern in the school system (and it is a concern in the public school). The teachers are more flexible, it seems.

Despite the measured success of our local charter school, the mood prevails, if you read the letters to the editor in the paper, that this is a blight on the community. Parents of the charter school students tend to be a loyal bunch. Parents of public school students are not so loyal to the public school as caught up in the conflict, which often causes them to use words like 'elitism' when talking about the charter school. Sad.

Posted by: KathyWi | March 6, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I live in Brevard County, Florida, the Space Coast, and about 10 years ago the county decided to make choice a big part of the school system. It started as 1 IB program at a 7 - 12 school, then 2 honors/accelerated 7 -12 schools. Three choice elementary schools were created: one IB, one school for the arts, and one science school. Access to these 5 programs is by lottery.

Soon, some of the other high schools noticed that they were losing their best and brightest students and they needed to compete, so new choice programs were brought in to these schools. Cambridge, and additional IB programs were started. Others started "academies" which include law, health, business and the arts.

Magnet programs were also started at several elementary schools. In addition, a number of charter schools were also begun. Some failed for various reasons - including financial mistakes (some criminal) - but others have thrived.

The lesson? Choice does not hurt the existing public schools. Instead, it encourages every school to find a way to appeal to its students. My family has taken advantage of choice by sending my two sons to the elementary IB. However, it includes a 25 minute bus ride each way, and other parents much prefer the neighborhood school. Each family must find what works for them, and choice allows for this. My older son is in a gifted magnet for middle school now, and has applied to Cambridge for high school. We have stayed in public schools, and received an excellent education.

To make all this work takes some investment, of course. So far all these programs have been maintained during the economic problems. Corridor busing (bus stops at central locations to the various programs) is a big deal for most parents. As the space program winds down (a topic for a different blog), I can only hope we are able to keep the amazing choices we have here in Brevard County.

I went to high school in Fairfax County (a year or 20 ago) and I don't remember having any choices. I am thrilled my son (not an athlete, but pretty darn smart) received letters from at least 5 high schools "recruiting" him this winter. Don't be afraid of choices in the school system. Done right, choices encourage all schools to innovate and improve.

Posted by: jennypalmer1 | March 6, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

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