Greetings from Annapolis!
Well, this has certainly been a different kind of year for me here in the General Assembly, where I have spent much of my time in working sessions and hearings in Ways and Means, my new committee, and many workshops and working groups and discussions about bills that need and benefit from a more detailed analysis.
Earlier in the session, there was a lot of discussion about the Governor’s charter school expansion bill HB 486 and I have serious concerns about its implications, if passed as drafted. I have written a long op-ed about this bill and I wanted to share it with you.
I am a sociologist by training and by passion. So when statistical measurements are used out of context, I feel my fellow sociologists collectively sigh. Thankfully, as a Maryland legislator, I have the ability to call out faulty logic and do something about it.
And so I want to ask and answer important questions about the justification used by the proponents of the Hogan Administration’s bill on public charter school authorization and funding (HB 486) and to contradict their assessment of Maryland as “Last in Show” when it comes to our charter school program.
I want to point out that, in all national measures of public (both district and existing charter) educational quality, Maryland has ranked at the very top of U.S. states for many years. Education Week tracks these rankings annually in its universally respected “Quality Counts” assessment.
Maryland was #1 in the nation even in the five tough budget years of 2009-2013 because our legislature prioritized the funding of our public schools.
So what does it actually mean in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) report (released in January) when they claim that our state is ranked 43rd out of 43 states? How could we be last in one report and consistently first in others? What is NAPCS actually measuring?
Given that this NAPCS report is being used as the justification for the charter schools expansion bill, it’s important that we take a critical look at what the report is measuring and what the bill calls for:
First, Oversight. In Maryland, we empower our local school boards and educational professionals to know what’s best for our children and our communities. By contrast, NAPCS provides a higher score to those states which place the decision to approve and oversee standards regarding local charter schools to entities outside of the local school board or county. Maryland loses points because the legislature values local control and believes that they are best able to understand and assess charter school operators and any proposed expansion program.
In the proposed bill, any external charter management organization (CMO) can get around local county priorities and decisions about whether to approve or deny a charter school application by going directly to the state board. This approach has the potential to completely wrest local control away from locally elected or appointed school board members. Moreover, it provides CMOs the authority to convert local traditional public schools into charter schools without local school board consent and may exempt these CMO-controlled charter schools from all provisions of law and regulation governing other public schools. It is these mandated policies that I believe help make our public schools consistently highly ranked. An advisor to the Governor testified, on behalf of the administration, to House Ways and Means on February 26th, “The goal is to attract a vibrant educational sector in Maryland that attracts participation by the best and brightest of the national charter management organization.” In other words, this provision establishes something akin to a deregulated business climate for CMOs while holding traditional public schools to statewide standards.
Second, Our Teachers. Currently, Maryland’s charter school law constitutes a respectful approach to charter school teachers who we see as a key element in student success. In Maryland, we believe that our children’s teachers should be certified. We don’t allow a principal to hire just anyone. We also know that competitive salaries ensure teacher quality and stability, so we don’t try to pay teachers less in charter schools than in district schools. Under current law, charter school may receive a waiver for specialized content instructor. We believe that teachers should have a voice in what happens in their schools. We want our teachers to collaborate, not just obey, so in Maryland’s charter schools, we don’t strip them of their right to collectively bargain and negotiate their working conditions. The NAPCS report provides high scores to states with charter school programs which hire teachers who are not qualified or certified, whose pay scale does not have to match the district-set salaries and exempts teachers from being union-eligible. This bill penalizes us for our pro quality teacher approach.
Third, Follow The Money. In Maryland, we value budget transparency. We make sure that taxpayer dollars meant for public education actually arrive in the classroom, not in the hands of for-profit corporations. Our tool here is strict oversight from local school boards. In the proposed bill, national for-profits and other organizations who start charter schools in Maryland may extract operating costs from the local school system. So the charter schools funded by the State of Maryland, under this expansion bill, without the authorization of the local school board, may divert some percentage (we have seen up to 12%) right off the top and send it to the national CMO. That is Maryland money diverted from the classroom and the local system and turned over to any one of the CMO’s national charter school entities. And that’s not the only concern; while these charter schools profit, our local schools suffer. In his testimony in House Ways and Means against this charter school expansion bill, Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz reported that, under their state law like the proposed Maryland expansion bill, their charter schools repeatedly report a fund surplus. In 2013, for example, their charter schools reported an aggregate fund surplus of $117 million (an average of $1.4 million per charter school) while their District school system faced a deficit of nearly $70 million. In addition, because of their law, underperforming charter schools are not held accountable like their District schools, and continue to drain resources from District schools.
Why does NAPCS care so much about expansion in Maryland? NAPCS is a multimillion-dollar operation that pays executive director Nina Rees, a former official with the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, more than $300,000 per year. This isn’t an organization focused on helping Maryland’s highly rated education system. It’s an organization that lobbies for rapid expansion of charter schools, putting quantity ahead of quality. When our Governor says “Maryland is open for business,” this charter school expansion bill is really saying “Maryland is up for sale.”
Our charter school law takes only what is best from the national charter school model. We value flexibility and innovation. We negotiate extended hours and different educational approaches in our charter schools, and these schools are mostly flourishing. But we also retain public oversight. And so we must ask ourselves if ranking “last” in NAPCS’s measure of rapid charter school expansion is a failure…or a tribute. I believe it’s the latter. It is the strength, not the weakness, of Maryland’s successful charter school law that has brought us censure from charter school expansionists rather than support of each and every child in Maryland by ensuring their continued access to our proven high-quality education system.