At the end of 2014, just weeks after Larry Hogan won a surprise victory in the gubernatorial race, the governor-elect announced that he would push to expand Maryland charter schools once in office.
"We shouldn't be last in the nation in charter schools," Hogan declared—referring to Maryland's spot in the state ranking system designed by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), an advocacy organization that promotes charter schools around the country. According to NAPCS, Maryland has the nation's "worst" charter law. The Baltimore Sun editorial board, echoing NAPCS, has said Maryland boasts one of the "weakest" charter laws in the United States.
In late February and early March, legislators in Annapolis listened to testimony related to charter reform bills that Gov. Hogan introduced in the House and Senate. Supported by the Hogan administration, a coalition of charter school operators, and national education-reform advocates, the bills met fervent opposition from teachers, principals, and community members.
"I don't care what the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a lobbying group out of Washington, D.C., has to say about the charter school law in Maryland or where they rank Maryland relative to their own biased standards. Neither should you," testified Megan Miskowski, a speech language pathologist at Patterson Park Public Charter School. It's Maryland's strong law, she argued, that explains why Maryland charters have never wrought the level of fraud and abuse so prevalent in places such as Minnesota and Louisiana—states that receive high marks from NAPCS. "Who are they to define what is best for Maryland children?" Miskowski asked. "We do not answer to them."
The Maryland Charter School Act passed in 2003 and the first state charter schools opened their doors in 2005. A decade later roughly 18,000 students attend 47 Maryland charters—34 of them concentrated in Baltimore City. A version of the Public Charter School Improvement Act eventually passed, but it was substantially watered down from Hogan's original proposal, and many believe he'll push a stronger law again next year. The heart of the debate centers on competing visions for the future of public education, and whether one believes Maryland has the best charter law in the country or the worst.
The publicly funded but independently managed schools known as charters have grown significantly since the first one opened in Minnesota 23 years ago. Today more than 6,700 charters exist in 42 states and Washington, D.C. and their numbers are climbing. Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), first proposed the charter school idea in 1988; the influential union leader imagined a new kind of school that could serve as a laboratory for innovative and experimental education practices. The hope was not only to serve kids within charters who might benefit from alternative educational models, but also to carry newly discovered best practices back into traditional schools for all students to enjoy. In Shanker's vision, charter teachers would still be unionized district employees, but certain labor regulations would be relaxed to promote greater innovation.
Maryland's charter culture sets it apart from most other states in several ways. First, under the law all Maryland charter teachers are considered public school employees and represented under their district-wide collective bargaining unit. While this actually most closely resembles what Shanker had imagined, few states today adopt this particular model. According to the Center for Education Reform (CER), just 7 percent of all charter school teachers nationwide are unionized.
Another distinctive characteristic of Maryland charters has been a general commitment to innovate within the district, as opposed to outside of it. In other states, the law may allow for multiple charter authorizers, such as churches, universities, or nonprofits. In Maryland, however, only the local school board can authorize charter schools. "I'd say the strong desire [of Maryland charters] to work within the school district is fairly unique," says Joceyln Kehl of the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a newly formed coalition of charter operators around the state. "Maryland is hugely pro-union and Democratic, so that's just our context," she adds.
Additionally, Maryland charters must comply with a greater number of state and local regulations than charter schools in other states. While detractors of Maryland's law argue that this creates an inflexible environment for the independent schools to operate in, supporters point out that Maryland has not had any of the kinds of problems related to fraud, abuse, and mismanagement that charter schools in states with decreased regulation have had. "It is true that Maryland charter school law provides more oversight than many other states," testified Deborah Apple, a charter school teacher at the Baltimore-based Wolfe Street Academy. "It is also true, however, that our charter school system is more effective than most."
A stronger level of oversight, a close relationship with the school district, and unionized charter teachers illustrate the uniqueness of Old Line State charters. The vast majority of schools are considered "mom and pop" charters, meaning parents or former local educators founded them, as opposed to some of the larger national charter management organizations (CMOs) that have developed presences in other cities. According to an Abell Foundation report released this year, many high-performing CMOs have expressed reticence or disinterest in coming to Maryland given the conditions in which they'd have to operate. While the Maryland charter law has facilitated the growth of strong schools with little to no fiscal and academic issues, the question is whether such growth is sufficient, and whether the state's law should change in order to entice more CMOs to expand into Maryland.
Baltimore's 34 charter schools educate 13,000 of the district's 84,000 students. Bobbi Macdonald, co-founder of the City Neighbors Charter School, is one of Charm City's veteran operators. City Neighbors was one of the first charters to open up in 2005, and since then Macdonald has opened two more schools. Reflecting on the evolving dynamics between Baltimore charter operators and the district, Macdonald describes years of intentional relationship building. "I don't believe that school systems are made out of steel, they're made out of people," she says.
In 2004, after the charter law passed and before the first schools opened, Baltimore's new charter operators formed a coalition to organize and advocate for their collective interests. This coalition grew increasingly formalized as the years went on. "The work of the coalition became really focused on defending our autonomy and the rights of children in charter schools," says Macdonald, who served as the coalition's co-chair for the first six years.
Many charter operators spoke favorably, even nostalgically, of Dr. Andrés Alonso's six-year tenure as city superintendent, which ended at the end of 2012-2013 academic year. "Dr. Alonso had a clear vision of wanting to provide a portfolio of school options for families, and to create opportunities for innovation and then replicate those practices," says Allison Shecter, the founder of the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, one of the city's most popular charters. "I think when Dr. Alonso was here we had a really strong relationship and participated in a lot of ways on many different levels," says Macdonald.
Since Alonso's departure, the relationship between charter operators and the district has grown more strained. "I'd say it's a challenging relationship. It's not a partnership unfortunately," Shecter says. "We'd like it to be a partnership but in order for it to be a partnership there needs to be consistent and ongoing communication back and forth around policies that may impact charters." Many operators say they feel the district is neither accountable nor transparent, which fuels growing levels of distrust.
One issue charter operators repeatedly raise is that they believe the district short-changes them when it comes to per-pupil funding. Under state law, the district must provide "commensurate" funding between traditional schools and charters. Currently, the district allocates $7,300 per traditional school student, and $9,400 per charter student—which is supposed to take into account that Maryland charters have to pay for the cost of their facilities, programming, salaries, and other school-level costs, which the district pays for in traditional schools. However, the formula that the district uses to come up with these amounts is unclear, and operators are convinced that what they're getting is too low. Charter operators believe that they should be getting closer to $14,000 per pupil. Debates around these dollar amounts grow very charged.
Not everyone at charters agrees the district is shirking its funding responsibilities. "Charters still receive more per pupil, even after those extra costs are covered," says Matthew Hornbeck, the principal at Hampstead Hill Academy, a charter located just south of Patterson Park. "Everyone, with the exception of some of the charter operators, knows that." Hornbeck, who has served as his school's principal for 12 years, has been outspoken about what he sees as a district funding formula that unfairly favors charters.
"I was a charter operator and I absolutely knew we were getting more than traditional public schools," adds Helen Atkinson, the executive director of Teachers' Democracy Project, a local organization that helps teachers engage in public policy and develop more social justice curricula.
Jon McGill, the director of academic affairs for the Baltimore Curriculum Project, the city's largest charter operator, describes the relationship between charters and the school district headquarters on North Avenue as "overall harmonious" but says he does wish the district would be more transparent about how about how exactly it spends its slice of per-pupil funding. He thinks charters "lose the PR game" because the public sees them as always asking for more money. One reason the funding issues get so heated, McGill suggests, is because some operators have taken huge personal risks to open charter schools, and feel they need more reassurance that the district truly supports their efforts. "Some people have 30-year mortgages to worry about," he says.
While for the past decade the story of Baltimore charters has mostly been an intra-district struggle, Gov. Hogan's rise to power signified a turning point for the Maryland school-choice movement.
The legislation Hogan introduced would have dramatically changed the charter law passed in 2003. His proposals included provisions to exempt charter school employees from the district bargaining unit, as well as from many state and local requirements such as teacher certification. Hogan's bill would have enabled charter schools to compete against traditional schools for state public construction money, and the bill would have required districts to explicitly define "commensurate funding" to mean that charters should get 98 percent of the per-pupil amount that traditional public school students receive, leaving 2 percent left over for district administrative expenditures.
"It did take us by surprise," says Kehl. "As a charter sector, we were not expecting legislation this year, and we're grateful that Governor Hogan finally wanted to cast an eye on the charter sector." While charter operators around the state met with legislators and held school meetings to discuss why they supported Hogan's bill, Kehl acknowledges that their advocacy "wasn't as robust an effort had we been really prepared for it."
Once news of Hogan's charter bill went public, Maryland charter teachers began to organize together in new ways. In Baltimore, teachers convened and decided to form the Baltimore Charter School Teacher Coalition. Educators broke up into committees to strategize and implement an organized political response to the bill.
Corey Gaber, a sixth-grade literacy teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School who was active in the coalition, says part of the reason they formed their group was because they were dissatisfied with the pace and quality of the Baltimore Teachers Union's (BTU) response. "We felt like we needed to reach out and inform teachers about what was going on and we didn't feel like the union was doing it effectively," he says. Gaber acknowledges that among Baltimore charter teachers there exists a "constant contradiction of feelings"—in some ways they are dissatisfied with the current union leadership, but on the other hand, teachers are proud to be being unionized district employees and deeply value their protections. With fellow charter teacher Kristine Sieloff, Gaber wrote an Op-Alt for City Paper ("The injustice of a two-tiered education system in Baltimore City," March 31) and Gaber created and helped to circulate a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures from both charter and traditional public school teachers.
"The interests of traditional teachers in charters and public are exactly the same right now," says McGill, who thinks the proposed bill would have created deep divisions between Baltimore educators.
The BTU helped circulate another petition for charter teachers and charter educational support personnel, roughly 740 people in total, and more than 90 percent of eligible petitioners signed. "I spoke with every teacher I know, teachers were universally against [the legislation]," Gaber says.
In addition to local educators who worried about losing their collective bargaining rights and allowing non-certified teachers to work with kids, other leaders pushed back against what they saw as a deeply inequitable funding structure embedded into Hogan's legislation.
"Charter advocates rely on the premise that as money flows from a regular school to a charter school, the costs of the regular school go down proportionately. Sounds good; it's just not true," wrote David W. Hornbeck in a Baltimore Sun op-ed published in February. Hornbeck "recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools" while serving as Philadelphia's superintendent of schools from 1994 to 2000, and he now believes he made a grave mistake. Hornbeck, who also served as superintendent of Maryland schools from 1976 to 1988 (and is the father of Hampstead Hill principal Matt Hornbeck), pointed out that Pennsylvania's charter law is ranked much higher than Maryland's and "yet its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia."
Bebe Verdery, the director of the Maryland ACLU Education Reform Project, also submitted testimony against the bill, arguing that the proposed funding formula would result in severe cuts to traditional schools. "Simply put, students without any special needs would get funding the state formula intended for others," she said. Verdery also objected to a provision that would have allowed public capital repair funds to go toward private buildings that housed charter schools, saying, "this would further strain an already insufficient pool of state resources for addressing the state's $15 billion school repair and construction backlog."
Hogan's legislation said "commensurate funding" should mean that charters get 98 percent of what traditional public schools receive because a 2005 State Board of Education ruling determined that districts needed only 2 percent of per-pupil funding to cover central administrative costs. But when the Department of Legislative Services (DLS) surveyed local school systems later on, it found that administrative expenditures make up closer to 10-14 percent of per-pupil spending. Critics argued that if 98 percent were legally guaranteed for charters, but necessary administrative work still had to be done, then money would be taken from traditional public school students, potentially leading to increased class sizes, special educators with enormous case loads, or cuts to after-school programming, gym, and art.
Local charter operators insisted that their goal was not to bankrupt the district, but simply to fight for parity. "We believe strongly that we can achieve this without harming funding for other schools," testified Ed Rutkowski, the executive director of Patterson Park Public Charter School.
The watered-down bill that Hogan ultimately signed was a grassroots victory for some, and a major disappointment for others. The Center for Education Reform, which hired several lobbyists to push for the bill's passage, was so dismayed with the final result that it actually urged the governor to veto it, insisting that this would be a step back for Maryland school choice, not one forward.
The final bill ended up removing mostly all provisions that had generated controversy. It grants greater autonomy to charters that have demonstrated five years of success, and it provides for increased flexibility with student enrollment. The bill also authorizes the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and the DLS to complete a study by the end of October 2016 to determine what a more appropriate figure should be for districts when it comes to commensurate funding.
"The law that passed was more subtle and more evolutionary rather revolutionary," said Hampstead Hill's Hornbeck. "It did not trash a good law, like the governor's proposal tried to do."
Given that the governor still had support from MarylandCAN, a pro-charter advocacy organization that helped to craft the original legislation, Hogan went ahead and signed the bill into law. It's an imperfect bill, but it creates "the pathway" to expand charters and it grants more flexibility to existing ones, said Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Hogan's special adviser on charter schools.
"As the state with the most restrictive charter law in the country, these small steps forward, while welcomed, are not enough," said Jason Botel, the executive director of MarylandCAN, in a statement. "They must be the start, not the end, of our work to dramatically reform charter school policy in our state."
Kara Kerwin, the president of CER, believes MarylandCAN is mistaken to think that they can just go back and improve on the new law later. She points out that the new law clarifies that only the local district board—not the Maryland State Board of Education—can authorize new charters, and that online charter schools are now explicitly prohibited from operating within Maryland.
In an interview, Kerwin describes online charters as "one of the biggest innovations right now that's helping so many students who aren't brick and mortar types." However, several studies have found that online charter schools tend to provide a lower-quality education than traditional schools, and a 2011 New York Times investigation found that K12 Inc., one of the nation's largest online charter school operators, "tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards."
Most people interviewed for this story do not believe the new law will lead to an expansion of Maryland charter schools, one of Hogan's top policy priorities. "The final bill that passed was very limited in scope, it doesn't have a whole lot of changes," Macdonald says. "But it's a step in the right direction."
So what does this all mean for the future of Maryland charters?
"I have no doubt that this was round one and [the operators] are going to try again as long as Hogan's governor," Gaber says. "We're going to keep fighting. We started this teacher coalition knowing that this is a long-term fight and we need to be organized and ready before the next time comes."
Kehl thinks that the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which just officially emerged as a statewide group in July, will focus on building a more unified policy voice and cultivating a stronger presence in Annapolis. "Our charter sector has matured," she says. "If you believe that schools shouldn't be one size all, then you have to create a system that supports that. I don't see how you can make change if you keep everything the same."
Whether new legislation will be introduced next year is an open question. Kerwin of CER thinks such an effort would be futile, even if they tried. Todd Reynolds, the political coordinator for Maryland's American Federation of Teachers, says some legislators might decide it makes sense to wait until after the new MSDE/DLS study is completed.
While the emerging landscape appears fraught with tensions between the district and the charter sector, there still remains a possibility that Maryland charters will chart a different sort of future than that of other states.
Even though Macdonald of the City Neighbors Charter School supported Hogan's legislation, she acknowledges that some parts made her feel ambivalent. While she feels strongly that Maryland charters need more autonomy and bureaucratic relief, she also wants to preserve collective bargaining rights for charter teachers. "I feel like Maryland is so unique in our stance," she says. "I haven't yet seen the bill I would really fight for."
In a few months, on Oct. 22, the Teachers' Democracy Project will be hosting a big meeting between teachers, charter operators, politicians, union officials, and school board members to try and figure out a way forward that doesn't require another heated legislative fight. Atkinson believes the current law is good, but that Baltimore teachers—charter and non-charter alike—should be organizing for more money for all schools. "We're going to try to hold an open conversation about what people's concerns are," said Atkinson. "The operators are reasonable, they're not right-wing, they're not trying to get charters to take over the world. Their main frustrations are with the union contract and some of the ways the district controls things."
McGill thinks that a more collaborative push for charter reform from the district, teachers, and charter operators "would be the ideal" solution but worries things are growing too polarized for that to materialize. Gaber, however, says that the Baltimore Charter School Teacher Coalition has also discussed how they want to stand for something, and not just against reform. "I think it would be a good idea for us to be more proactive," adds Reynolds of the AFT. "We should get back to what charters were intended to in terms of offering innovation that can then be brought into traditional schools."
The question of whether some of the larger CMOs would be interested in setting up schools in Maryland remains uncertain. Kehl says it's important to help facilitate more attractive operating conditions because "there's a certain point where you tap out your local leadership" and if you "can't attract national talent" into Maryland, then you've just closed the door on quality options for kids.
Others see luring CMOs as a less urgent priority, especially given how the state increasingly underfunds public education. In his latest budget, Hogan increased state education funding by 0.4 percent, but cut Baltimore City's funding by 3.3 percent. Attracting those CMOs—which would likely be into Baltimore—might mean redirecting funds toward charter facility expenses or pushing harder to restrict collective bargaining. Maryland might also experience some of the financial strain that rapid charter growth in other states has placed on traditional schools. Testifying last spring, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools Dr. Gregory E. Thorton said Hogan's bill would work "to the benefit of large out-of-state charter organizations—to the detriment of Maryland's most vulnerable student populations."
While the Baltimore City School District might need to work harder to collaborate with its local charter sector, and the teacher unions may need to re-examine some provisions within their contracts, it's not yet clear that Maryland's unique charter culture is headed out the door.
State law currently allows charters to negotiate waivers and exemptions from certain aspects of the district-wide collective bargaining unit. That's how Baltimore's KIPP charter school was able to extend its school week; KIPP had to agree to pay its staff more money for the increased number of working hours. Theoretically charter operators could sit down with union leaders to discuss some of their most pressing concerns around staffing, innovation, and autonomy. "It's not meant to be a one-size-fits-all situation," says Reynolds. "You can sit down with the union and negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding. We have done that, and I think that'll continue."
"I think it would be amazing to sit down with the union and really roll up our sleeves," says Macdonald. "I do think it's really important for teachers to be unionized, to collectively bargain, and to get paid well, but I also think if we want to innovate and serve the children of Baltimore, we really have to allow [for] some more flexibility."