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.

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