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Baltimore needs school choice

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by Frank A. Bonsal III
Baltimore Sun
August 30, 2015

Nearly a half-century after local and national uprisings around the passing of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., what is the one aspect of the urban condition in Baltimore that has changed too little but can transform a person’s life and livelihood, and ultimately his or her community?

Education.

Consider Victor Hugo’s words: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” Annually, Maryland spends nearly three times the amount to incarcerate a person ($38,000) than to educate that same person ($14,000). Of all Maryland’s 24 school districts, Baltimore City spends at or near the top per student, yet just 16 percent of 8th graders and 14 percent of 4th graders are proficient in reading.

The good news is that Maryland’s few charter schools have already played a significant role in transforming children’s lives. Maryland charter schools outperform their public school peers in several categories: Roughly 70 percent of them have better reading scores for 8th grade African-American students than their traditional counterparts; 59 percent have better 8th grade reading outcomes for low-income students; and these results occur with nearly 30 percent less funding.

The history of U.S. charter schooling is best explained by experts and co-navigated with organizations that have the value-added data chops, networks and scar tissue to induce change as situations warrant. The Center for Education Reform (CER) was founded in 1993 as a pioneering D.C.-based nonprofit, the first of its kind to actively advocate for and inform on behalf of educational equity across the U.S. Twenty-two years later, as chairman, I am proud of the work we do. In 2015, we noted that D.C., Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan and Arizona are the top five “governing bodies” for charter schools based on key metrics: number of independent authorizers, density of allowed schools by cap, operational autonomy and effectiveness, funding equity, and implementation effectiveness. By these measures, Maryland has the third worst charter law in the country.

Gov. Larry Hogan made a valiant effort to change state charter law in his first legislative session, and I enthusiastically laud him for standing up a strong but fair charter bill — one that was subsequently gutted and passed by the legislature. It is a small first step, and not, we all hope, a slippery slope. Many constituents in Maryland will say that we have some of the best public schools in the nation. We do, but we also have some of the worst, and that’s where we must focus if we truly want to have an excellent and diverse education ecosystem.

As a multi-generational Marylander, the state is in my heart and soul, and I want nothing more than for all of its citizens to thrive. My purpose has been in education and entrepreneurship; I work to make a difference for the millennials and grow the region’s startup community, particularly in education technology. It is unbelievable to me that we are unable to pass simple, fair, wholly emancipated charter school legislation that will allow more opportunities for more kids.

Maryland’s origins date back to the 1630s, when the Calvert family and other forthright visionaries paved the way for a startup civilization, determined to build a new and better future.

It worked. Statehood and a new country were formed, and land was even availed for our nation’s permanent capital. Continuous improvement and a permeable system of checks and balances are critical to a thriving citizenry, a representative republic. A healthy government, then, must serve the people, all people, not necessarily a lopsided political whimsy. When a long-controlling government system has built up and hard-wired infrastructure, people and processes, the system too often cannot get out of its own way, cannot bear the load of decades of political wranglings to do the right thing.

One possibility for us conflicted adults is to listen to and position millennials at the fore. One compelling example is a project partnership between the Living Classrooms Foundation and Towson University’s WTMD entitled “Believe in Baltimore.” We must envision the future for the urban millennial — if not all of Maryland’s children—and back into revolutionary solutions. And school choice must be part of that solution and vision for the future in order to make immediate progress in educational equity.

Frank A. Bonsal III is founding director of entrepreneurship at Towson University, an education technology investor and chairman of The Center for Education Reform. His email is fbonsal@gmail.com.