Beth Milne is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

This post originally appeared on the MarylandCAN blog on April 15, 2015.

The evidence is clear that the majority of Maryland’s children from low-income households do not have access to high-quality public education. As documented in our Opportunity Schools report, this is not because we don’t know how to provide a high-quality education for low-income students, but instead because too many of our state policies work against these efforts. That’s why MarylandCAN has been working over the past several years to reform our public charter law to help educators in their efforts to provide a great education for all their students.   

On Monday, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill that represents the most significant reform to the charter law since its creation in 2003. It contains a number of key steps forward in providing greater flexibility to our state’s charter schools so they can better meet the needs of their students. At the same time, as the state with the most restrictive charter law in the country, these small steps forward, while welcomed, are not enough. They must be the start, not the end, of our work to dramatically reform charter school policy in our state.   

The bill contains four key steps forward in expanding flexibility for public charter schools:

1. More flexibility in teacher certification

As the founding principal of one of Baltimore’s first public charter schools, I had to watch some of my best teachers leave the school system because they didn’t meet the state certification requirements, which have no correlation to teacher effectiveness. The bill passed by the General Assembly provides charter schools much greater flexibility in meeting certification requirements, which in turn will help students have access to more teachers of color and teachers with STEM and arts backgrounds.  

2. More transparency in local funding  

Since the Baltimore City Public School System authorized its first public charter schools more than a decade ago, it has been very difficult for public charter school operators and even the school system itself to ensure that funds flowing to public charter schools are equitable. The bill passed Monday gives the Department of Legislative Services and the State Department of Education the responsibility and the teeth to collect the data necessary to make local funding of public charter schools much more transparent.  

3. Prioritized enrollment for disadvantaged children

At the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing on the bill, we heard an impassioned plea from community members for more flexibility for public charter schools that want to prioritize serving educationally disadvantaged children. Current law makes this impossible and forces schools, like the highly regarded Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, to turn away disadvantaged children in their neighborhood who would benefit from their educational environment. The new bill allows schools to prioritize educationally disadvantaged children, which makes high-quality options more accessible and better positions public charter schools to be engines of community development, as they are in many other states.  

4. More flexibility on staffing for high-performing schools

As the executive director of a nonprofit public charter school operator in Baltimore, every year I watched as bad policy and politics made it difficult for some teachers to transfer to my schools and work with my students. The bill passed on Monday ensures that teachers who want to transfer to high-performing public charter schools will be able to do so regardless of other policies or political obstacles.  

Too many barriers remain, but the bill is not a step backward on authorizing

While the bill is clearly a step forward for existing charter schools, it doesn’t do enough to address the significant barriers in state law to creating new charter schools. There has even been talk that the bill is a step backwards on charter authorizing policy. That’s not true. The reason why requires some history and discussion of policy details.   

The primary authorizer of charter schools under current state law are local school districts. While technically the State Board of Education can act as a “secondary authorizer” in the event of an appeal, this has never happened in the law’s 12 years on the books. And even if it does happen, the school’s staff would be employees of the local school board, funding would flow through the local school board, and the school would be subject to all local school board policies. It’s a statewide authorizer in name only.    

The bill just passed preserves the State Board’s authority to mandate that a local school board authorize a public charter school and to overrule a local school board’s denial of a public charter school’s policy waiver application. It also includes a new provision that gives high-performing public charter schools exemption from many local board policies. There is no difference between the state board authorizing a public charter school that is then overseen and managed by a local school board, on the one hand, and the state board mandating that the local board authorize the school on the other. There is a big difference, however, between a public charter school having to apply for a waiver from every single local board policy and a public charter school having automatic exemption from many local board policies. As it stands, this bill is a small step forward, not a step backward, on charter growth.    

Our kids can’t wait

As I reflect on whether to support the current bill in spite of its limitations, I am reminded of a lesson I learned many years ago as the principal of KIPP Ujima Village Academy. During a dispute with the local school board over funding, the school board issued a check to us for the amount they thought we were owed; just half of what we thought we were owed. I told my board chair I was considering not cashing it to ensure that we eventually got the full amount. My chair pointed out that our students needed and deserved that money immediately. He said, “Go cash the check and then fight for the rest.” That’s what I did. We eventually won the full amount.   Maryland’s kids can’t afford for us to leave these important policy reforms on the table another year. MarylandCAN and our allies won significant improvements to the public charter school law this session and we encourage Governor Hogan to sign the bill so that kids and teachers benefit this year from these improvements. At the same time, we will not rest on these small gains. The day after these reforms are signed into law, we will get right to work advocating for all the other changes the students and teachers in Maryland’s charter schools deserve. And I am confident, in time, we will win.


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