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Maryland Charter School Law Earns a ‘D’ Ranking 38th Out of Nation’s 43 Laws

January 28th, 2015

The Maryland charter law that passed in 2003 is among the nation’s weakest laws, not only because it’s restrictive, but also because it’s incredibly vague. The law is silent on some of the most critical policy issues for charter school development, including the level of funding required to support a charter school, the number of schools that can be started, the term of the charter, the governance structure of the school, and student admission requirements. All twenty-four Maryland counties developed charter school policies that turned out to be far more restrictive than the law itself. Charter schools in Maryland are not exempt from any state or local education rules as they are in other states, and they do not have fiscal or operational autonomy, nor do they have control over staffing decisions. While 67 schools have managed to open, they have done so under the most tenuous and unhealthy charter climates, and several have had to sue to have their rights as public schools recognized.

Based on involvement since its inception and close working knowledge of the law and others around the country, we recommend the main focus for any substantial proposal improving the charter law in 2015 must include:

Multiple Authorizers

Currently only school boards, with limited capacity, limited interest, concern over funding, and zeal for their existing schools can authorize charter schools. (The state board of education could recommend that local authorities reverse their decisions, but without legal standing.) This leaves all of the decision making as to whether or not a charter school opens in the hands of school districts. Districts are allowed to make their own rules when it comes to charter schools. Charters are often viewed as competition by local districts and without independent entities to approve charter schools, charter growth is slow.

Permitting the creation of independent authorizers is one of the most important components of a strong charter law. The data show that states with multiple chartering authorities have almost three and a half times more charter schools than states that only allow local school board approval. About 80 percent of the nation’s charter schools are in states with multiple authorizers or a strong appeals process. Independent authorizers are better able to hold charter schools accountable because they have full control over how they evaluate charter schools, and they have their own staff, management team, and funding streams. A strong charter authorizer must be vigilant in monitoring its charter school portfolio, without becoming an over-bureaucratic policing agent.

Recommendation:  Endow the University of Maryland System with chartering authority. Like the State University of New York, which functions as the leading authorizer in that state, giving the Chancellor authority to create and oversee a new office of authorizing removes the politicization that school board politics result in and provides a respected, independent and highly accountable voice and overseer to the chartering process.

Operational Freedom

Successful state charter laws give “blanket waivers” to charter schools, exempting them from most or all laws not related to discrimination, health or safety. In Maryland, charters must comply with all provisions in the law unless they request a waiver and receive approval. Charter school applications have been rejected because the applicant requested a waiver.

Unlike most charter laws, employees of Maryland’s charter schools are considered employees of the district, not the school. They also are required to be covered by the district’s collective bargaining agreement. Successful charter school laws leave such decisions up to the charter school’s leadership and hold the governing board of the charter accountable. The governing boards of Maryland charter schools are largely advisory only, as the school boards retain authority over both operations and finances. This takes away all freedoms from charter schools to hire and compensate employees the way they want for their individual needs.

Recommendation: Enact a “blanket waiver” exempting charter schools from all rules and regulations governing other public schools, save for safety, discrimination and standards and evaluations of students, staffs and schools. Whether or not a charter school has the ability to hire and fire its own personnel, and whether or not they have the ability to negotiate their own pay scale, is critical to a charter school’s success. There are many examples of schools in states where teachers must remain covered by the district’s collective bargaining agreement – meaning same pay scale, the same hours per day, days per year, etc. – and charter schools have had to fight to stay open or retain their teachers. Charter schools should have the option to bargain collectively and contribute to the state, or other retirement funds.

Funding

Funding for Maryland charter schools is up to the interpretation and decisions of the school district, which views as oppositional any infringement on the public’s dollars for that district. Charter schools are supposed to be funded per student enrolled, not by the kinds of funding formulas that currently distribute money to school districts. Thus, strong laws require and enumerate the percentage of funds and specific program funding that are due to charter schools.   

Maryland’s law says, “A county board shall disburse 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”.  A lawsuit filed and won by charters in 2007 resulted in a determination by the state board of education that funding should be equitable, but charters still suffer a gap of almost 40% of funding of what traditional public schools receive and are allocated none of the tax base for facilities funds that other public entities receive. Thus, the funds they do receive must cover operations, facilities, and maintenance.

Recommendation: Stipulate that for the purposes of charter school funding, 100% of the average per pupil expenditure of a district should follow a student to the charter school of his/her choice.

Conclusion   

A law that is governed with multiple authorizers, independent from all existing school agencies, that distributes funds fairly to approved charters, and ensures that they have the operational autonomy to meet their goals is a law that fosters innovation, choice and higher performance for all student.