New charter law may dismantle public education
The following piece is by Helen Atkinson, a longtime educator and activist living in Baltimore. She now heads up the Teachers Democracy Project out of the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
In Maryland we have what some consider a weak charter law and what others consider as one of the best charter laws in the country. How you view the law depends on how you define the problems faced by public schools in this city and in our country as a whole. You may think that charters in general, or even just the charters you work in or send your children to, are part of the solution to poor performing public schools. You may feel that at least some kids (and teachers) are getting what they need, and that, perhaps, it is not your business what happens to other schools and other children. If so, then there are many reasons to want legislation that would give Baltimore city charter schools more money and more freedom from bureaucratic constraint.
On the other hand, you may like the particular charter school you work in or attend, but you may also care about whether we might be creating an increasingly tiered system of education within our city and state. You may have fears that this new law provides an opportunity for outsiders to exploit the newly proposed charter-friendly conditions for their own gain. You may feel that fixes to our education system should be across the board and should help all schools and all children. And you may understandably fear the erosion of your union rights. If so, then there are plenty of reasons to fight this legislation.
Up until now, under the current legislation, charter schools in Maryland are generally run by so called “mom and pop” charter operators. Parents, community members, and teachers started each school or group of schools specifically for the purpose of creating a school they believed in. There are no national chains (with the exception of KIPP) in Baltimore. Every teacher is part of a large, and still fairly significant, collective bargaining unit. And the current law requires a focus on funding for charters that is “commensurate” with other schools. This new legislation would change all of this.
This document is my attempt to read between the lines of the proposed legislation to describe what some of the changes are intended to achieve, not just for our current “mom and pop” charters, but, more significantly, for large charter management organizations who might suddenly see Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, as ripe ground for expansion. This document represents my opinion and is based on extensive experience in the world of charter schools in Baltimore having held various roles in several charter schools over the past 10 years as: a founder, a teacher, a teacher-director (of Independence School Local 1), an operator (Baltimore Teacher Network), and a member of the coalition of charter schools.
House Bill 486: Extend the definition of a public school employee to include employees of charter schools with separate bargaining unit
First and foremost, House Bill (HB) 486 amends the definition of a public school employee to include the employees of a Public Charter School (PCS) operator. It allows the employees of a PCS to form an employee organization under law. As such, they are extended the right to become an exclusive representative on behalf of the employees of that school, who are their own bargaining unit, and negotiate with their employer/authorizer.
The charter authorizers in Maryland are also the employers. These authorizers/ employers consist of each county’s school board and the Baltimore city school board. Charter school operators of existing charters can opt to change their status with regard to teacher employment at the time of renewal of the school’s contract.
Teachers at a school where the operator is the employer can choose to form a new union.
New charter schools simply indicate whether or not their employees will employees of the public school employer or of the operator.
This shift, if voted in, would take Maryland into a whole new category with regard to charter legislation. It was likely only proposed as a long shot. Removing affiliation to the current union is a pre-requisite for many of the larger charter management organizations (CMOs) to consider coming to Maryland, and if this push fails this time around, it will come up again. Large national CMOs have so far declined to come to MD. If this portion of the legislation were ever adopted, it would open definitely open the door.
The bill consistently inserts the word “public” to describe charter schools and its employees. The purpose behind this is likely to counter the frequent accusation that charter schools are only semi-public. The de facto degree of public-ness of charter schools, even when defined as public in state law, depends on a variety of factors such as: who owns the school building, whether the employees are employed by a local school board or by the charter management organization, and whether decisions about the school are made locally or by a national organization. This push to include a reference to “public” throughout the bill is therefore, likely, defensive.
It is important to understand that regardless of how enticing some operators might make a “new union” sound—create your own union from scratch with all your own rules etc—this would be a disaster for teachers and for the Baltimore Teachers Union. Across the entire country only 12% of charter teachers have successfully negotiated unionized status. In Philadelphia, only 5 out of 90 charter schools have unions. It takes three to five years to set up a new union and a significant amount of legal expertise.
The bottom line is that charter operators want to get out from under the current contract so the door would be open for paying teachers less and/or giving them less job security. Even if our current operators were eminently fair and continued to pay teachers at their current rates, new operators would undoubtedly follow the same patterns that exist across the rest of the country. This is piece of the legislation that was probably put in as a long shot to make it seem like compromises were being made this time around, but it will come up again.
Weights for certain students to modify the lottery process
The next significant change has to do with how charter schools can weight their lotteries.
There are no weights in the current law. A lottery process is required for any school in which the applicants out number the available slots which allows a charter school to weight the status of a student being considered for admission in a lottery (i.e. if the student is eligible for free lunch, has a disability, or is homeless as defined under federal law).
This list of how charters might weight their lottery in order to attract more low-income students, more students with disabilities, and more English language learners must be disingenuous. The real tendency for many schools is to try to limit the numbers of these students in their schools for the purpose of maintaining or achieving higher test scores. Most likely, the real intended change has to do with charters wanting to give a weight to applicants who live in geographic proximity to the school. This potentially favors schools that are located in middle class or at least relatively stable areas of the city. It is important here to recognize that a school’s Free and Reduced Lunch (FARM) statistics can cover up significant differences with regard to the challenges faced by schools. These differences that are obvious to anyone who spends time in school tend to be glossed over when numbers to do with socioeconomic status are given in the aggregate. This is significant because claims by schools with regard to percentage of FARMS students must be considered more deeply when comparing one school with another. The use of weights to protect a school’s catchment area from a less desirable adjacent neighborhood is not a decision that should be left up to an individual school.
Granting Chartering Authority to the State
The next section on charter conversions is a little confusing. I presume that it is intended to make it easier for an out-of-state CMO to propose taking over an existing school.
The state department of education in Maryland is called a “secondary” public chartering authority.
The review period for an appeal is 120 days. The state board becomes a “primary” chartering authority (authorizer) when acting in its appeal review capacity or when granting a charter to a converted school.
The review period for an appeal to be reviewed is 90 days.
The authorizer may not withhold approval of an application until an applicant secures a facility.
There seems to be a lot of ambiguity in this section, which would need consideration of legal counsel. The state department of education would become a primary authorizer in the case of conversions and appeals and the time period for consideration of an appeal is shortened (120 to 90 days).
On the surface, this does not appear to be so bad. However, I would suggest that we need to read this section of the bill through the lens of information shared by Jason Botel of MDCAN who has been campaigning in favor of allowing large out-of-state CMOs to come to Baltimore to take over low performing high schools. Until Hogan won the election, MDCAN was shooting for minor changes to the law that would act as a shoehorn for future legislative changes. As a consequence of the election, the proposed legislation is much more comprehensive. The arrival of out-of-state CMOs would make our current mom and pop operations seem tame by comparison. Why do our current operators want to invite these notoriously money grabbing groups to Maryland? My only guess is that they bring with them the large donors (read Walton, Broad, Gates, and other large donors), and much political clout. I am assuming here that the designation of a “primary” authorizer makes the process of approval to “convert” easier for out-of-state CMOs.
Charter schools would not have to comply with certification requirements for teachers
The issue of certification is definitely a problem for certain schools such as the Montessori Charter School. This bill eliminates the problem of certification once the charter application is approved.
All professional staff must “hold the appropriate Maryland certification.” All professional staff shall “be qualified and credentialed in accordance with the plan submitted by operator as part of its [charter] application.
The argument could be made that if changes to certification requirements are needed for charter schools, then perhaps they are needed for all schools. This section would require much deeper consideration and public discussion as it skirts the need for a more comprehensive consideration of teacher credentialing. This is not an area in charters should get special consideration.
A comprehensive waiver for all provisions of law and regulation
Under the bill charter schools can request for a “comprehensive waiver” that exempts them from “all provisions of law and regulations governing other public schools.” It is not clear what this would mean in practice. The only areas cited as exempt from waiver are: audit requirements; measuring academic achievement and assessments; and health, safety, and civil rights. The question definitely remains as to what kinds of exemptions this would entail.
Lastly, the money.
“A county board shall disperse to a public charter school an amount of county, State, and federal money for elementary, middle, and secondary students that is commensurate with the amount disbursed to other public schools in the local jurisdiction.” Requires a county board to disburse to a PCS an amount equal to 98% of the sum of state, county, and federal funds appropriated to the county for the current expense fund categories and may not include expenses for debt services and adult education.
It also further defines Title I per pupil allocation and how to calculate it.
It adds the requirement that PCSs be able to participate in the capital improvement program using a cost-share formula.
This change could mean a figure closer to $14,000 per pupil rather than the current $9,450. Charters would be eligible for money for facilities outside of city schools buildings
In my view, these financial provisions would seriously divide charter schools from all the other schools. There would simply be less money left in the pot for the other schools. There are plenty of details within the section on finances that would need to be understood more thoroughly, but the overall impact is clear. Existing charters get more money; new out-of-state charters see Baltimore as an expansion opportunity; traditional Baltimore schools get less. The financial impact would be felt immediately by the rest of the school system and would not be offset by significant savings as charters scramble to provide their own equivalent services such as transportation, food services and special education.
We are naïve, and perhaps somewhat arrogant, if we believe that the process of opting out of burdensome bureaucracy, irrational rules, and a history of oppression for the students and communities we work for, is as simple as carving out a semi-privatized, better financed niche within our city. If the rules are untenable, the constraints counter-productive, and the history of poverty and racism ugly, then it is up to all of us to bring change to the whole city. This new bill would harm public education in Baltimore and it needs to be defeated.