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.

People for Public Schools Asks the School Board to Make Policy

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.