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  • There is some valuable debate and discussion happening about whether the proposed changes to Maryland’s charter law are or could be beneficial for existing charter schools in Baltimore. My view, and the view of some Baltimore charter school teachers and leaders, is that they are not. Anything of value in the legislation (SB595/HB486), such as access to more money, would be valuable to all city schools, both charter and traditional.

    But there is another, perhaps more important, element of the discussion. Hogan is not supporting this bill because he wants to better fund or give more freedoms to currently successful progressive charter schools in Baltimore.

    This bill is not written for existing charter schools. It is written to bring bigger charter management organization (CMOs) to Maryland. We do not have these operators in Maryland because our current charter law is one of the best in the country.

    When I first read the bill, I was struck by how similar it is to the recommendations of MarylandCAN, an organization which has long lobbied for a “complete overhaul” of Maryland’s charter law.

    The proposed changes are strikingly similar to the recommendations outlined in MarylandCAN’s 2012 document regarding the key elements of “overhaul”:

    • Changing charter teachers from unionized employees of Baltimore City Schools to employees of the CMO itself, who would have no union but would be free to try to form a new one.

    • Removing the city school district from the appeals process for charter application denials, and making the State Department of Education the adjudicator of application appeals.

    • Increasing per-pupil funding for charter schools and giving charters access to money for facilities funding outside of city schools buildings.

    The bill is also strikingly similar to MarylandCAN’s recommendations in their “Opportunity Schools” report from last year under the section “Recruit operators from around the country with a proven track record of success with children from low-income households to operate schools in Baltimore”:

    • Give Opportunity Academy operators full legal and fiscal autonomy and require an independent governing board to govern each operator organization.
    • Exempt Opportunity Academies from state and local laws and regulations, except those dealing with student safety and health, civil rights, special education and compliance with federal laws and regulations.
    • Make all Opportunity Academy employees, including principals and teachers, employees of the operator. As such, Opportunity Academy employees will not be subjected to any existing school system’s collective bargaining agreements.
    • Specify a funding formula that gives Opportunity Academies equal access to all student funding and requires that Opportunity Academies also have equal access to available school facilities and facility funding.

    I will put aside the question of the misleading phrase “equal access” to funding. What is an “Opportunity Academy?” At the time of MarylandCAN’s report last year the answer to that question wasn’t entirely clear. There are some clues in the new charter legislation.

    The proposed bill will not change who is allowed to be a charter operator in Maryland. It will dramatically change who will want to be a charter operator in Maryland.

    As the “Opportunity Schools” report states, “We have personally reached out to several of these network operators, and many have expressed interest in considering expansion into Baltimore if the right policies are put into place. We plan to follow up on this report with a full proposal for a new ‘Opportunity Academy’ law that would make these new policies a reality.”

    The school my children attend, Hamilton Elementary/Middle School #236, was selected by MarylandCAN as an “Opportunity School” last year. At first, we were happy for the positive attention, but parents soon figured out that our children were being used to promote a political agenda that would be detrimental to our school and our children, and we responded with a letter to the Baltimore Sun expressing our concerns.

    Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN, asked to meet with us and we agreed because we wanted to learn more about his plans.

    One question we asked him was, “Who are the operators you have reached out to who will come to Maryland if the law is changed?”

    These are the operators he specifically named:

    YES Prep: The board of Yes Prep, based in Texas, are energy and financial executives . The Vice President is Doug Selman, a retired Vice President of ExxonMobil. The operator has an entire web page dedicated to attacking Diane Ravitch because she publishes articles about what it’s like to work at one of their schools.

    Uncommon Schools: Uncommon currently has 42 schools in 3 states. One of my favorite education bloggers, Jersey Jazzman, wrote an excellent post about them titled, “Uncommon Comes to Camden: Let the Segregation Begin!”

    Achievement First believes all children can succeed “regardless of race or economic status.” At one of their middle schools in East Harford, CT, almost half of the students were expelled or suspended during the course of one school year.

    IDEA Public Schools “is a growing network” of public charter schools with 20,000 students in 36 schools. The operator’s website states, “IDEA is committed to ‘College For All Children’ and has sent 100% of its graduates to college for seven years,” a claim that can only be facilitated through high rates of expulsion. IDEA’s school in Washington, DC, had the district’s second-highest rate of expulsion in the 2011-2012 school year.

    During our meeting about MarylandCAN’s “award,” Jason said, “We’re not trying to completely overhaul state charter law in this report,” explaining that such a thing was not politically feasible.

    Clearly, he believes times have changed, with Hogan’s election being no small part of the equation. This bill is written for Yes Prep, Uncommon, Achievement First, IDEA, and other charter operators like them. We are not familiar with these chain operators in Baltimore because they do not yet want to operate in our state. Let’s keep it that way.

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