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.

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