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Posted at 7:05 PM ET, 02/ 3/2011

It's time for Montgomery to embrace charters

By David Borinsky, Baltimore

In the Jan. 31 Metro article on the Maryland State Board of Education reversing Montgomery County's charter school decision ["Frustration for champions of charters"], a county Board of Education member expressed concerns about the budgetary
impact of charter schools.

An Anne Arundel County charter middle school operates out of a $10 million facility, has the second-highest standardized test scores in the county, has a long waiting list and has eliminated the minority achievement gap. Montgomery County's most recent capital budget contemplates a $45 million middle school (as well as many other "additions" and "modifications" budgeted at millions more per school) and, according to the Maryland State Board of Education, has a significant minority achievement gap. Not only are Montgomery's budgetary impacts self-created, but the county also is missing opportunities that other jurisdictions have embraced to fix problems -- such as the minority achievement gap -- that go to its core mission.

Other jurisdictions, including several in Maryland, view charter schools as part of their educational portfolio, as a nimble and cost-effective strategy to serve the varied needs and interests of parents. Consequently, they budget for charter schools and otherwise include them in their planning. Also, as the state school board said in its opinion, "we remind the local board that the General Assembly has determined that public charter schools shall exist."

I would respectfully suggest, therefore, that good education policy, sound budgeting and, not least, state law compel Montgomery County to bring its school budgeting and planning practices into alignment with its peers.

The writer is president of the Maryland Charter School Network.

By David Borinsky, Baltimore  | February 3, 2011; 7:05 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Maryland, education, schools  
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Comments

I agree that charter schools can be a valuable part of a school system's "educational portfolio", as the writer puts it.

That's a much more accurate view of the role of charter schools, than the too-prevalent one of charter schools as the instant panacea for all that ails American education.

MoCo does need a separate charter school review board. Sure, it's partly the valid question of conflicts of interest -- as the critics rightly point out. But also, it's the volume and specific nature of the work, especially at the outset when new charter schools need a high degree of involvement and oversight by the board in order to assure a successful startup. Only a board dedicated to the purpose can do justice to it.

But note: The state school board's reminder that "the General Assembly has determined that public charter schools shall exist" is mostly woofin', since this determination doesn't specify that they shall exist in each and every jurisdiction. So, writer, don't try to sell us woof tickets.

There's a reason why MoCo should go slowly, and it's related to the reason why too many jurisdictions jumped on the "panacea" bandwagon without looking and are beginning to regret their lack of preparation and foresight.

Too many times, "charter school" has served as a code phrase for "union busting". This is so common, for example, that it even leads me to question whether the writer's use of "cost-effectiveness" might be a code phrase for "non-union contracts". See how the poisoned apple taints the whole barrel, and why it behooves MoCo to be cautious?

The constant rallying cry of charter school proponents is "The children!" Nothing wrong with that, but what's wrong is thinking it makes any kind of sense to offer second-class teachers' contracts while expecting to hire first-class educators. That's self-delusion, and it won't benefit our kids.

Posted by: laboo | February 4, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Laboo, your point about "union busting" is an interesting one, but it's not relevant in this case. Maryland law dictates that charters hire only union member teachers.

Posted by: subrosa77 | February 4, 2011 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I think that it's worth noting that in a school system which effectively worships math and science, even a math and science charter school couldn't get off the ground. There is apparently time and money to fix the things that were done WRONG, but none for doing things right in the first place.

That said, budgetary concerns can't be dismissed. MCPS puts forth a proposed budget which is then shot down by the Council on larger-scale budgetary concerns - and then penalized by the State for not increasing its per-pupil spending. Budget-wise, MCPS is damned if they do and damned if they don't.

There is a difference between building a 45-million-dollar school that will serve all of a certain number of students in a geographic area (and then of course the portables that will be needed in 2 years or less when the projections are found to have gone horribly wrong (College Gardens *cough cough*)) and setting aside money for a freestanding facility, whether purchased or rented, in addition to those already in use or projected, that would theoretically serve a particular population of students from the entire county. While there are plenty of spaces in Montgomery County that might be usable for a small charter school, rent in this area is predictably prohibitive. It would also require staff salaries above and beyond the number of teachers and staff already working in MCPS, and barring some heavy-duty grant money from outside that would continue year after year, there is no other place for that money to come form other than at the expense of programs already in place, many of which are State- or Federally mandated. Special Education is already spread very thin nationwide, for example, and can't really take more cuts without the kids who need these services suffering; as it is, many children who might otherwise get these services to keep from falling behind can't get them until they finally do.

I'm a huge proponent of charter schools. When I taught in MCPS I investigated the possibility of starting one myself the year they were finally permitted. One of the biggest sticking points was WHERE to hold it - even if a school were approved, there isn't a place to go, not without renting space elsewhere. Any new buildings MCPS builds or renovates barely hold the students they project to use them, with no space for extra programs like these. It would be nice to see MCPS work with charter school applicants toward a solution, but Dr. Weast's and the Board's steadfast refusal to even consider charter schools seriously points to a significant bias against them. My own take on it is that Dr. Weast has no interest in pursuing something, especially something innovative and possibly wildly successful, that wasn't his idea, and as far as I'm concerned he can't leave the system well enough alone fast enough. Let's hope his successor isn't cut from the same cloth.

Posted by: question42 | February 5, 2011 6:59 AM | Report abuse

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