Tag Archives: public education

Where do the children go after schools close?

School closings.jpgJust returning from a conference in Boston, URBAN (Urban Research-Based Action Network). There, we talked as scholars and activists from all over the country about schools closing. They close under plans that are supposed to make the closings sound benign like Renaissance, 21st century, or Millennial. However, this is anything but benign. Closing schools hurts communities and shifts students and families to new schools. We know that they do not fare well. A Chicago study showed that the students do not attend better schools and fall behind academically. A second study that looked across six cities showed that closing schools does not end up saving much money and does not produce better outcomes for kids. Coming soon will be a research project that follows the students in Baltimore into their new schools to find out not only what the academic outcomes are but what the social implications are as well.

Debating the value of charter schools in Baltimore

Listen to my appearance on the Marc Steiner show on September 29, 2015, where I debate charter operators in Baltimore about the merits of a lawsuit that they have filed against the city. They are arguing for more budget transparency after the city proposed a plan to lower the dollar amount that the charters would be allocated by the city. The city dropped the plan, but the charters have kept the lawsuit going. I argue that the lawsuit is a distraction from the problem of lowered funding from the state and that the governor should be the real target of protest. Moreover, the charter schools and traditional schools should be fighting together on behalf of city schools for a bugger pot of funding that the state, up until now has decreased. Charter lawsuit

Talking about the fight for schools in West Baltimore

2015-10-01 14.12.58

These are the folks I was with yesterday talking about schools in Baltimore at the Imagining America conference. This year the conference was held in Baltimore, and our panel, featuring Dayvon Love from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Helen Atkinson from the Teachers Democracy Project, and George Mitchell from the Park Heights neighborhood association and Langston Hughes Elementary School.

Our conversation was about the ways in which decisions were made to keep certain schools open and to close others in Baltimore. Twenty-six schools were slated for closure under something called the 21st century plan which is a plan to renovate some schools in Baltimore. The agreement, which was made with the state legislature, provided funds for school reconstruction if the district agreed to “right size” itself, which meant school closures. Even though school closure has a negative impact on communities, the city agreed– the positives outweighed the negatives for them.

Hearing the story of Langston Hughes Elementary school’s closure, however, sheds light on the plan for closure. As George Mitchell reported, the plan for closure was riddled with problems. The school was small, but served Park Heights, a low income black neighborhood, well. It was higher performing than other schools in the area and had a thriving after school program for children. The school was also in a renovated building which had technology, air-conditioning, and a facility that would rival any school serving a more affluent community. So why close the school? Charter operators had their sights on the location for one of their schools. Mitchell started getting calls two years ago and continues to get calls about turning over the school to private operators. He and others have tried to fight the closing, but once the city announced the list of school closures, parents began to pull their children out of the school, causing it to have declining enrollment and weakening their case to keep the school open. Many people started to see the closing as inevitable and even elected officials withdrew support from the school.

Children who attended Langston Hughes are now going a mile down the road to Pimlico Elementary, a school built in 1910 without the air conditioning, technology, and modern facilities. They have a bus to transport them there, but the research tells us that the children will face other problems integrating into the new school. Anecdotal reports have confirmed that the children are not fitting in at the school and struggling academically. Some parents have pulled their children out of that school  as a result.

What does this mean for Baltimore? For urban schools? The Langston Hughes story is one which tells us that the improvement of urban schools is not always about looking at genuine successes and building upon them, but deal-making. The closure of Langston Hughes was agreed upon by city and state officials long ago. The success of the school and the broad support that it had in the community meant very little to those folks. Their plans were made. However, this does not mean that all is lost in Baltimore or in urban schools, it means that the resistance to these plans needs to be more forceful. Plans to close Dyett High School in Chicago were finally abandoned because of a group of supported that launched a hunger strike for that school. They built a broad coalition, got a lot of media attention, and forced the city to compromise. Those will be the kinds of actions that teachers, parents, students, and community members will need to take in order to resist plans for urban school improvement that are guided by interests outside of low income communities of color.

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.

Charter school debate

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.

Financial Arrangements

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.



Communities need to make their own decisions on schools

School closed

This post is  by Antwain Jordan, a senior at Morgan State University and Co-Executive Director of the Baltimore Algebra Project.

Here is what he says about why communities need to make decisions about schooling:

I recently found about Baltimore’s plan to close schools and renovations in an article in The Baltimore Sun.  I believe that this poses an amazing opportunity  for Baltimore for school facilities and programming with 2.8 billion dollars to renovate school buildings. But, I wondered who controls this funding?

As I read further, I saw that there was an M.O.U.(Memorandum of Understanding) between the Maryland Stadium Authority, Baltimore City, the state of Maryland, and Baltimore city schools, none of whom are community members, even if they purport to know/represent the interest of the community.

In addition to that the times for the communities to offer input they are difficult to find out about, which deters community involvement and awareness. This is a serious issue because schools in general are resources for the community because they are the institutions that equip and educate the people of the community.

Communities are being kept in the dark about the decisions that are being made about schools. It would be like someone saying to you that they want to remodel your house but you can’t have any control over the remodeling but you could have input, but then they don’t ask you for any input.

The next issue I have with this plan is that the planned facilities are not planning to accommodate the people of the community. Most of the building plans for the newly built and renovated builds are significantly smaller than the ones that exist now. These schools are community schools and making them smaller means they will not have the capacity to serve all of the students in any given community because it’s substantially smaller than the original building.  This would be like you having a family of 5 but the remodeling plans is only for a family of 3 and the remodelers pick which 3 people live in the new house.

The last, and maybe the biggest, issue I have with the plan is that the people who are in the communities now won’t be the same people there at the end of the ten years. Gentrification is rapidly displacing predominantly black and low income communities. Wealthier residents can pay the kinds of taxes needed to keep these new facilities running. So the black families are being swept out of the neighborhoods in order to make way for that money. Johns Hopkins University has been engaged in this process as they invoked eminent domain to displace long-time residents of a neighborhood called Middle East in order to bring in more affluent residents to populate the neighborhood. This plan has been well documented. Plans to compensate the community members, give local residents jobs, or allow all of them to send their children to the new school that Hopkins built have not materialized.

I worry that a similar scenario is likely to come to pass in the process of city-wide school closings and renovations. Already there is reneging on the agreement to renovate schools. Lake Clifton, a school that has been promised renovations for years, is not going to be renovated after all, according to a recent report.

The state and the city claim the project will be exponentially more expensive then first expected. This too is being done without the consultation of the community. This is unacceptable. First the people of Baltimore are promised new and quality buildings, which they rightfully deserve. Then the process begins without their consultation or input when they should be the ones controlling the process. Now, for some, the opportunity is in jeopardy all together and most people are none the wiser.

Unless the community takes control over the decision making process for the resources for their community, then this beautiful opportunity and political moment will turn into a repeat of history where black people will be receiving sub-par educations and will not reap any of the benefits of this beautiful opportunity. I urge communities to get aware, get angry, get involved and take the control of this plan, or be doomed to marginalization and being deprived of what is rightfully ours.