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.
| 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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