How much is too much and when will we know?

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.

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