A New Voice for Public Education in Baltimore

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In fall 2015, a group of concerned parents came together at the 29th Street Community Center in Charles Village to hear about charter school funding. We wanted to know what impact the charter school lawsuit would have on students in Baltimore City’s traditional public schools.

A presentation by Baltimore City Public Schools’ Executive Director of New Initiatives, Alison Perkins-Cohen, left us wanting to know more. Over the three months since, we have learned a lot about charter law in Maryland, about how the City Schools budget works (and doesn’t work), and about the ways in which the governor and private interests are working to change the way our schools are funded and run.

We worked to understand – asking questions, creating presentations, revising presentations, creating infographics, scrapping infographics. We also decided to organize. We started to have meetings and attend other people’s meetings. We created a petition. Our hope is to become the seed of a grassroots campaign for fair and equitable school funding.

On this blog we will post original insights and links to posts we like from around the Web. We invite you to listen to the voices of public school parents, teachers, staff and supporters who are invested in their public schools – schools that take care of our children and anchor our communities. Our goal is to broaden and deepen the conversation about the future of public schooling in Baltimore City. We invite you to join us.

How much is too much and when will we know?

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How much will additional charter school seats cost the school system?  We don’t know.

How many additional charter seats will be added and at what point will their unknown funding formula become unsustainable?  We don’t know.

Does our school board have the power to manage charter expansion without contributing to the closure of neighborhood schools and a system-wide budget crisis?  According to the board chair, no.

In the midst of voting on charter school applications late into last night’s school board meeting, Board Chair Marnell Cooper told members it would be “illegal” to deny an application because of any potential adverse impact on city schools’ budget.

Earlier in the meeting, People for Public Schools re-presented our letter to the Board, with additional signers, urging the Board to deny charter applications while the charter funding formula is the subject of litigation and potential legislative action.

We wrote:

“Traditional school parents, community members, teachers and staff deserve to know the costs to their schools of the founding of a new charter school, a charter expansion, or a conversion of an existing traditional school to a public charter school – as well as the startup and incremental costs of any combination of these events. Everyone in the school system deserves to know how these fundamental shifts will affect our schools. The Board has a fiduciary responsibility to project the impact of new charter schools on surrounding schools and the school system as a whole.

“In light of current circumstances, it is impossible for the Board to meet that obligation. BCPSS is engaged in a lawsuit over charter school funding, and the acceptability of the funding formula the school system uses is in question. Not until the lawsuit is resolved and an equitable funding formula is affirmed should the school system seriously consider adding more charter schools or increasing the number of charter school seats.”

Speaking to the Board, we said:

“We appreciate the Public Charter Schools Policy:  Compliance Report Review that was presented to the Board at the last month’s meeting.  There were some important, but not surprising, details in the report, including that newly created charter schools serve a lower-than-average percentage of students eligible for free and reduced meals, and that traditional schools serve proportionally more high-needs students with disabilities.

“What seems to be missing from this review, however, is what we are asking for in the letter we submitted last month and which we resubmit today with additional signers.

“What is the impact of new charter school applications, conversion applications, and charter expansion applications on the enrollment and funding of existing neighborhood schools?

“The district conducted just such an analysis of the Montessori Public Charter School’s application for a Geographic Attendance Area waiver and found approval of their waiver request would threaten the very existence of Dallas Nicholas.

“The GAA waiver request was handled carefully by the school system, but on the basis of that individual situation.  It is not the only example of charter expansion threatening the existence of traditional schools – and it was a bellwether of a district-wide funding crisis we are creating for ourselves in the name of a “portfolio of schools.” ”

The Board denied three out of four charter applications, but on their merits, not out of any concern for sustainability or potential adverse impact on existing neighborhood schools.  The Board approved the Baltimore Curriculum Project’s application to convert Frederick Elementary School to charter status.   Frederick’s neighboring elementary school, Samuel Morse, is currently slated for closure.

Does Baltimore need a state-mandated cap on charter school expansion?

Yes.  In the meantime, City Schools should deny applications for new, expanding or converting charter schools pending the outcome of the charter lawsuit and an analysis of the economic and enrollment impacts of charter expansion.

Letter to the Baltimore City School Board RE: Charter Applications

People for Public Schools sent a signed version of this letter to the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners on June 10, 2016.

 

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RE: 2016 Charter School Applications for SY 2017-18 and SY 2018-19

Dear School Board Commissioners,

People for Public Schools (PPS) is an independent, grassroots advocacy organization formed in fall 2015 by Baltimore City Public Schools parents and supporters. We are concerned about the potential impact of the lawsuit filed by charter schools against the District. Representing the interests of nearly 400 Baltimore City parents, grandparents, teachers, and community members who are affiliated with more than 30 traditional, contract, and charter schools, we are advocates for fair and equitable funding for all schools and all students – no matter what type of school they attend.

In regard to the Board’s recent hearing on proposed charter school expansions and the Board’s upcoming vote on these proposals, we have one request: Do not approve any new charter schools, conversions, or expansions unless and until the Board and the school system can determine and demonstrate their potential impact – in individual cases and on the whole – on existing school budgets.

Traditional school parents, community members, teachers and staff deserve to know the costs to their schools of the founding of a new charter school, a charter expansion, or a conversion of an existing traditional school to a public charter school – as well as the startup and incremental costs of any combination of these events. Everyone in the school system deserves to know how these fundamental shifts will affect our schools. The Board has a fiduciary responsibility to project the impact of new charter schools on surrounding schools and the school system as a whole.

In light of current circumstances, it is impossible for the Board to meet that obligation. BCPSS is engaged in a lawsuit over charter school funding, and the acceptability of the funding formula the school system uses is in question. Not until the lawsuit is resolved and an equitable funding formula is affirmed should the school system seriously consider adding more charter schools or increasing the number of charter school seats.

Under the current charter funding formula, we know that any growth in the number of charter seats in Baltimore City will create additional burdens on traditional school budgets and the students those budgets support. During information sessions led by City Schools last fall to educate the public on its then recently introduced charter funding formula, City Schools staff noted that it would be impossible to fund every school in the system the way they fund charter schools; there is not enough money. By comparing sets of similarly sized traditional and charter schools, and looking at budgets of conversion charters before and after conversion, PPS can show that charter schools receive more funding than traditional schools. The disparity is clear where it counts most: in the ratios of students-to-staff and students-to-teachers.

Right now, rather than expand choice, an expansion of charter seats will increasingly place Baltimore City students in a two-tiered public education system – in which one is better funded at the expense of the other. We must not further exacerbate existing inequities by adding charter school seats without a proper assessment of their true costs.

Thank you for your leadership on this critical issue and your thoughtful consideration of this request.

Law Says “Commensurate” Funding, But Baltimore City Charter Schools Get More

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This past September, some of the charter school operators in Baltimore City filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore City School System, saying City Schools is not funding them adequately under Maryland State law.

Maryland State law says school systems must fund charter schools “commensurate with the amount disbursed to other public schools in the local jurisdiction” (Md. Code, § 9-109(a) of the Education Article). The nine charter operators who are suing the school district think they are getting less than they deserve compared to traditional schools.

A People for Public Schools analysis, however, conducted in collaboration with the principals of two similar Baltimore City elementary/middle schools – one charter and one traditional, both Title I – shows that charter schools are getting much more.

Both schools have about 740 students, but the charter school has 14 percent more full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers – 41 compared to 36. (This does not count special education and English as a Second Language teachers, which are funded according to need at both traditional and charter schools.)

When it comes to total staff, the difference is even more stark: The charter school has 92 FTEs, compared to 62 for the traditional school, a difference of nearly 50 percent. The charter school has two assistant principals, while the traditional school has one. The charter school has 3.5 Academic Coach FTEs, while the traditional school has none.

The charter school has an orchestra with strings in addition to a band. They have a nutrition class, environmental science, and a musical production each spring. And, if that were not enough of a disparity, the charter school still had enough of a surplus saved over a number of years to undertake a significant expansion of their school building.

This is not surprising, since charter schools get about 50 percent more funding per pupil than traditional schools. Charters receive more than $9,000 per student, compared to about $6,000 for traditional schools. Charter schools need to pay for some additional costs from those funds, such as principals and professional development, but our analysis indicates that the disparate funding still results in widely unequal resources at schools.

With more than 15,000 of our roughly 80,000 students currently attending charter schools, Baltimore City is currently the only school district in Maryland that has to worry about the impact of significantly higher charter school funding on traditional schools. Baltimore City Schools is increasingly moving to a two-tiered system of schools – one much better funded than the other.

Charter operators would have you think all of that extra funding they get comes from a bloated City Schools central office at North Avenue. Our next blog post will challenge that long-held assumption.

As People for Public Schools, we want the charters to drop the lawsuit and engage in public negotiations with the District that include advocates for traditional neighborhood public schools. Baltimore City students and teachers deserve a fair and equitable funding formula – one that no longer benefits charter school students at the expense of their traditional school peers.

Baltimore City Charter Lawsuit Q&A

In fall 2015, a number of charter schools filed suit against Baltimore City Public Schools. In the ensuing months, People for Public Schools formed, created a petition for fair school funding, and researched the legal and budgetary concerns driving the charter lawsuit. We have prepared this Q&A to help parents and others understand the issues and get a sense of what’s at stake for all students if the charters win. This post is the second in a series. Part 1 covers Maryland charter law basics.

1. Who is suing the Baltimore City Public School System?

Nine charter operators representing 14 of Baltimore City’s 34 charter schools have joined the lawsuit. These include:

Operator Schools
AFYA Baltimore, Inc. AFYA Public Charter School; Tunbridge Public Charter School; Brehms Lane Elementary School (opening 2016)
Baltimore Montessori, Inc. Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School (including the Middle School)
City Neighbors Foundation City Neighbors Charter School; City Neighbors Hamilton; City Neighbors High School
Creative City Public Charter School Foundation, Inc. Creative City Public Charter School
The Empowerment Center, Inc. The Empowerment Academy
Experiential Environmental Education, Inc. The Green School of Baltimore
KIPP Baltimore, Inc. KIPP Ujima Village Academy; KIPP Harmony Academy
Patterson Park Public Charter School, Inc. Patterson Park Public Charter School
Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Inc. Southwest Baltimore Charter School

2. What is the basis for the current lawsuit?

The lawsuit alleges that the public school system has breached its contract with the litigating charters. There are essentially two claims. The first accuses City Schools of not following the Maryland State Board of Education (MSBE) guidance regarding funding, thereby underfunding these charter schools. The second claim is that City Schools has not provided charter schools with sufficient supporting documentation for how the funding has been calculated. The nine operators who have sued as of fall 2015 have asked for damages of at least $75,000 each plus costs.  Since the lawsuit alleges breach of contract, presumably they also seek enforcement of the MSBE funding guidance and further documentation of City School’s funding.

3. How has the District calculated how much funding charter schools receive? What’s the funding formula?

This infographic provides a sketch of how Baltimore City Schools calculates charter school funding and an outline of what’s at stake if the litigating charters win their lawsuit.

Under the current funding formula used by Baltimore City Schools, the system takes all general federal, state and local funding and deducts two “buckets” of funds. The first bucket consists of money that the system must spend but that does not directly benefit K-12 students in public schools. This includes system-wide costs for:

  • Retiree health benefits for retired teachers (including teachers from charter schools)
  • Debt service
  • Money spent on Pre-K
  • Non-public placements for special education students whose needs cannot be met in public schools

    The system then deducts funding that is due only to specific K-12 students, including:

  • Special education funding
  • English for Speakers of Other Languages funding
  • Specialized transportation funding (covers the costs of transportation for students with special needs, homeless students, etc.)

Finally, according to MSBE guidance, the system deducts the 2% administrative fee and then divides what’s left by the number of K-12 students in the system. In 2014-15, this resulted in $9,556 per charter school student. Charter schools serving eligible students have then received a mix of cash and services for special education, limited English proficiency (LEP), and other students due special services, as well as any Title I funding they were due.

4. What’s wrong with the MSBE guidance about funding?

In 2004, the year charter schools began to operate in Baltimore, City Schools proposed funding them with a mix of cash and services. City Neighbors Charter School and Patterson Park Public Charter School filed petitions with MSBE, arguing that the mix was not commensurate with the funding received by other public schools in Baltimore City. MSBE’s decisions favored these early charter schools, issuing guidance that stated that local school systems should take their total budget, deduct expenses for debt service and adult education, and then divide by the number of students in the system to come up with an average per pupil amount. Charters would then receive this amount for each student they enrolled. This guidance was appealed by the Baltimore City School System, but it was ultimately upheld by Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

However, from the point of view of those seeking fair and equitable funding for all students, the MSBE guidance is a primary source of tension between charter and traditional public schools. All school systems have out-of-classroom expenses other than debt service and adult education. If charters do not pay their fair share, the burden of these expenses falls unfairly on traditional school students and their schools.

The District and charter schools have been working around the guidance for that reason. The school system has continued to deduct commonly-shared public expenses prior to calculating per pupil funding for charter schools. Charter schools have to date agreed to share many of these expenses, such as money for specialized placements for special education students. In their October 7, 2015, presentation to the City Council, the litigating charter operators agreed that retiree health benefits, non-public placements, and specialized transportation should be deducted before charter funding is calculated.

Additionally, the guidance does not account for the fact that some funding is spent not on all students but only on students with a particular need. Baltimore charter schools have agreed in the past to the District’s deducting these funds prior to disbursing the per pupil amount for charter schools. Funding and/or services for students who qualify for them, such as English-language learners and students with special needs, are then added to the budgets of the schools that serve these students. That is where these funds should go.

5. What happens if the litigating charters win?

It’s not completely clear, but if a judge or mediator followed the logic of the litigating charters’ claim, which is based on the MSBE guidance, and required City Schools to use that formula, it is possible that the $106 million of required spending for retiree health benefits, pre-K, and non-public placements that is currently spread across all students would instead need to be paid for only by students in traditional public schools. This would result in over $15 million fewer dollars for students in traditional public schools, as charter schools would not be paying their fair share of these costs.

6. Why do traditional public school parents need a voice in this issue?

Any decisions made by the School Board, a mediator, or a judge about charter school funding will have an impact on all children in all Baltimore City Public Schools. While representatives of the litigating charters claim to speak for all parents, they are advocating for a funding formula that would be disastrous for students in traditional public schools. All parents of Baltimore City School students deserve to be heard on this issue. All of our children are owed adequate and equitable funding. If you agree, sign the petition.

Baltimore City Schools Faces $85M Budget Shortfall

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On Wednesday, February 24, the Baltimore City Schools administration laid out the initial impact of the 2016-17 budget, and it’s not pretty: The bottom line is that the school system expects to be short about $85 million. Here’s why:

Revenue Down $28.5 Million

Declining enrollment and increased property wealth in Baltimore City – much of which does not provide general tax revenue to help fund our schools – means less money from the state and possibly less from the city itself.

Governor Hogan’s FY 2017 budget proposes a loss of $25.3 million in state education aid to City Schools. The school system seems to be budgeting based on a worst-case scenario to include a potential loss of $3.2 million from Mayor Rawlings-Blake and the City due to enrollment declines. While conservative budgeting may be a wise approach for the school system to take, the City has never reduced school funding based on an enrollment drop. They certainly shouldn’t consider it now. Given the increase in city wealth, our expectation is that rather than cut funds the city will add funds to City Schools – becoming part of the solution. For now, though, the school system is budgeting as if losses of state and city funding are real.

Expenses Up $56.4 Million

While we have less money and fewer students, expenses are still up:

  • Personnel costs are up $21 million, including $17 million just for health care.
  • City Schools’ portion of the 21st Century Schools investment (the $1 billion new City Schools construction program) requires an increase of $10 million this year, for a total of $30 million, as mandated by state law.
  • Facilities Maintenance funding is increasing by $3 million for FY2017. City Schools’ Comprehensive Maintenance Plan, which covers all schools in the district, requires an increase in maintenance funding by $3 million each year over the next six years.
  • Pension costs are up $7 million due to a shift in responsibility from the State to the school district.
  • Costs for students with disabilities will be up $8.6 million.
  • Required staffing in traditional schools (like principals) is up $6.8 million.

These increased costs add up to $56.4 million. Added to the $28.5 million in lower revenue, that’s about an $85 million shortfall for next year’s school system budget.

UPDATE: March 10, 2016

Advocates (including us!) went to Annapolis March 9 with the Baltimore Education Coalition to raise our voices for Baltimore City Schools. We learned that the Governor intended to submit a supplemental budget adding $12.7 million for education in Baltimore City to cover the loss of funding due to enrollment decline. Now it is up to our leaders in Baltimore City to make up the difference.

People for Public Schools Asks the School Board to Make Policy

The Dallas Nicholas Elementary community was out in force at the Feb 23, 2016 school board meeting on a Geographic Area Attendance waiver for Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School.

This is what we said:

Dr. Thornton, Members of the Board, Principals, Students, and Other Supporters of City Schools:

 

We stand here today knowing that our school board is poised to set a precedent as to how to answer charter school requests for Geographic Attendance Area (or GAA) waivers. Authorized by the Public Charter School Improvement Act of 2015, these waivers would allow certain charter schools that currently draw all their students from across Baltimore City to set aside a percentage of seats for students who live in a nearby zone. As People for Public Schools – an independent grassroots organization of parents and other supporters of Baltimore City Schools – we urge the School Board to deny these waivers until it has articulated a policy that takes into account the waiver’s impact not only on neighboring traditional schools but also on the system as a whole.

As parents of students in Baltimore City Schools, we believe that the promise of choice cannot come at the expense of fairness and the sustainability of public schooling in Baltimore City. When considering the value of granting a waiver written by charter school supporters in the interest of improving charter schools, the Board has a unique duty to consider what is in the best interest of all students – especially the 70,000 students in our traditional public schools.

The Board is the only entity that can do that job.

As you know, the system is currently facing significant cuts to state funding and a lawsuit brought by 9 charter operators who are demanding more funding from City Schools – despite the fact that charter schools already receive more per pupil than traditional schools do. Also hanging over traditional schools is the Board’s effort to “right size” the District. Schools in buildings that are “underutilized” are under threat of closure, and funding for the 21st Century School Building Plan depends on maintaining occupancy levels in schools designated for new construction. Any change that would exacerbate budget pressure on zoned traditional schools by sapping enrollment, needs to meet a standard of scrutiny that the Board has yet to set. This is especially important when we are talking about citywide charter schools with waiting lists that show citywide demand.
Until the Board articulates a policy for GAA waivers that is premised on the notion that the improvement of charter schools must be a positive-sum game for charter and traditional school students alike – we respectfully request that the Board say no. In the absence of such a policy, you have no basis for saying yes.

This is what the Board did:

The Board took a vote on a GAA waiver request from Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School. The charter school, which has a waiting list and testified that it has not been meeting its enrollment cap for “strategic” reasons, asked to pull up to 30% of its student body from Greenmount West, a neighborhood currently zoned for Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School.

The Board had heard from a staff member, a teacher, a grandparent, and the principal of Dallas Nicholas, and they watched a video that City Schools had produced about the school. The Board also learned from the Office of New Initiatives that the school is underenrolled and building utilization is under the threshold.

The Board rejected a motion to grant a waiver to Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School that would allow it to save 20% of its seats for Greenmount West students. It instead granted a GAA waiver to set aside 10% of its seats, which was the recommendation of the CEO. No numbers were attached to these percentages. No reason exists for why the waiver was granted. They had no basis for saying yes.

One board member made a point of noting for the record that a policy should be set in advance of granting such waivers in the future.

Maryland Charter Law Basics


Traditional & Charter Side by Side
This FAQ on Maryland charter law is the first in a three-part series. Part 2 covers the charter lawsuit filed in 2015; Part 3 will tackle questions about charter school facilities funding.

1. What is a charter school?

A charter school is a public school run by an operator other than the school district. In Maryland, state law allows several different kinds of groups to open a charter school, including:

  • The staff of a public school,
  • A parent or guardian of a student who attends a public school in the county,
  • A non-religious nonprofit organization,
  • A non-religious institution of higher education in the State, or any combination of the above.

Potential charter operators apply to the public school board for a charter. If successful, the operator receives public funding from the school district to operate their school.

2. How is a charter school in Maryland different from a charter school in another state?

The laws in Maryland governing charter schools are different in several important ways from laws in other states. The biggest difference is that charter teachers and principals in Maryland are employed by the public school district and not by the operator. This difference allows teachers and principals to be members of the public school unions.

In Maryland only the local school district can authorize a charter operator, while in many other states municipal governments, the office of the mayor, or even state universities can act as authorizers. Some states, unlike Maryland, allow for-profit charter schools. The result of these differences is that charter schools in Maryland are much less likely to commit fraud with taxpayer money, and they can offer teachers stable jobs with a good wage.

3. Who can attend a charter school?

In general, charter schools are public schools that are open to all students who live in the district that authorized them. For a particular student, the answer depends on the type of charter school. There are two kinds: 1) neighborhood schools that convert to charter status, and 2) new schools. A school that converts to become a charter keeps its enrollment zone and must remain open to any in-zone resident. Those schools may not have many spaces for out-of-zone students. New charter schools must be open to all students in the district, with one exception. As a result of the Public Charter Improvement Act of 2015, new charter schools may apply for a geographic attendance area waiver, which may give enrollment preference so that students who live in that area fill up to 35% of the school’s seats. A school may apply for the waiver if the geographic attendance area has a median income equal to or less than the median income of the district as a whole. For all charter schools, admission depends on the availability of seat. If more students apply than there are spots at the school, a lottery is held. Students not selected through the lottery are placed on a waiting list for that academic year in case a spot opens up.

4. How does the lottery process work?

A charter school decides whether it wants to hold its own lottery or have the school system hold the lottery for them. In either case, the law requires all applicants’ names to be entered into the lottery and admission to be random.

5. Do any applicants to Maryland charter schools get special consideration?

The governing board of a charter school can set aside spots for certain groups of students, with up to 10 percent of spots being reserved for the children of the schools’ founders. Who is a “founder” is up to a school’s governing board. The charter board can also decide whether to give the children of current teachers priority.

Changes to Maryland’s charter school laws in 2015 allow charter schools to give greater weight within the lottery system to a student if the student:

  • is eligible for free or reduced price meals,
  • is homeless,
  • has disabilities,
  • has limited English language proficiency, or
  • is the sibling of a student currently enrolled in the charter school.

The 2015 act also created the potential for eligible charter schools to provide some enrollment preference to students who live within a geographic attendance area with a median income equal to or less than the median income of the district as a whole.

6. How many of the students who apply to charter schools get in?

This depends on the school. Some charter schools do not have enough applicants to fill all grades, while others have waiting lists of several hundred students.

7. How many charters schools are there in Maryland?

There are 50 charter schools in the State of Maryland, 34 of them in Baltimore City. The Maryland State Department of Education provides a slightly out-of-date list of all of Baltimore City’s charter schools, along with other schools they refer to as “operator schools,” including contract schools, New Schools Initiative Schools, and Transformation Schools, here. MSDE’s data is instructive in that it shows that about two thirds of the charter schools in the state of Maryland are in Baltimore City.

8. Who do Baltimore City charter schools serve, and how do their students differ from those served by traditional public schools?

Since charter schools either have zones (like many traditional public schools) or hold citywide lotteries for admission, one would expect their students to be similar to the students in the district in which they operate. According to MSDE 2014 data, 14.9% of the 83,322 students in Baltimore City Schools attended a charter school. Taken as a whole, Baltimore City charter schools serve about 7% fewer poor students and about 1.5% fewer special education students than are served by traditional public schools. However, averages do not account for the degrees of disability served by each type of school, or for the concentration of extreme poverty found in some schools. Nor do they account for the fact that in some areas new charters serve populations that are very different. For example, in Northeast Baltimore, small citywide charters including The Green School, City Neighbors and City Neighbors Hamilton share a neighborhood with traditional public schools that serve significantly less white and less wealthy student populations.

Questions, comments or corrections? Let us know.
Copyright (c) People for Public Schools 2016