Op-Alt: The injustice of a two-tiered education system in Baltimore City

City Paper

“Class size doesn’t matter,” said no teacher ever. At Southwest Baltimore Charter School and City Neighbors High School (also a charter school), we have an average of 23 students in our sixth-grade literacy and ninth-grade English classrooms. Our colleagues have on average around 30 kids to manage in their traditional Baltimore City Public Schools. Last year one of those colleagues taught 38 third-graders in her noncharter school. I repeat, 38 third-graders in a single space! Such a class load is unconscionable, and a testament to the commitment of people who work in such environments.

Why the disparity? Southwest Baltimore Charter School gets approximately $9,450 per pupil, while traditional schools get $7,300. While it’s true that charters have to cover the costs of their facilities, analysis by principals across school types indicate that charters are clearly getting the better end of the deal. And that’s before the nonprofit boards operating the charters do independent fundraising through federal grants and local philanthropy (an activity that few traditional school principals with more responsibilities and less support staff have the time for).

Clauses in Gov. Hogan’s controversial charter school legislation HB 486/SB 595 (whatever form they may take now or in the future) threaten to take the significant current funding inequity between BCPSS schools and widen it further.

Here's how: HB 486/SB 595 required the local school board to disburse 98 percent of unrestricted funds to charter schools, leaving only 2 percent remaining to support central office functions and activities (things such as payroll, legal, IT, budget office, and human capital recruiting). This is an absurd number considering that a Department of Legislative Services survey found that school systems across Maryland, not just North Avenue, require approximately 15 percent of their budget for central office functions. We’re not math teachers, but we’re pretty sure that with a budget of over $1 billion for BCPSS, the difference between 2 percent and 15 percent is totally a lot of money.

Perhaps North Avenue will need less than 15 percent as charters theoretically take over some of the services they provide, but it will certainly need more than 2 percent. So who takes the hit? With 98 percent of funds guaranteed for charters, and necessary central office work still having to be done, the difference will be made up on the backs of students in traditional Baltimore City Public Schools. This means larger class sizes, special educators with mathematically impossible case loads, and the cutting of after-school programs and gym and art classes.

We joined our charter schools because we wanted to work in schools that aligned with our own pedagogical philosophies, with like-minded staff, in places that stood side by side with traditional schools as equal partners. We understand charter operators’ desire for greater funding; Baltimore City teachers feel it in our classrooms every day. The needs of our students massively outweigh the assets provided to meet those needs. Baltimore’s elite private schools charge between $25,000 and $27,000 in annual tuition, and that’s for educating kids who are not living in deep poverty, who have access to plentiful resources at home, and who have opportunities for enrichment in their communities. Baltimore City must make do with approximately $10,000 less per child, and that’s before the budget shortfall is made up! We refuse to allow the majority of young people in the city to be robbed of their already-insufficient resources.

There are many reasons to be concerned about whatever bill emerges from Annapolis including a direct attack on collective bargaining, inviting large out-of-state charter management organizations into Baltimore, creating a second authorizer whose board is appointed by the governor, greater autonomy leading to waste and fraud, and the fact that charter school teachers don’t even want these reforms (an online petition we started for BCPSS teachers against the legislation has almost 300 signatures, the majority of whom work in charter schools).

Even if we put all of those concerns to the side, the two-tiered system of schools that would result from this legislation should be sufficient grounds to kill the bill. In order to be beacons of innovation, charters need to be equitable. Charter teachers such as ourselves are concerned about the sustainability of the entire Baltimore City Public School System to meet the needs of all children, not just the ones in our own classrooms.

Corey Gaber teaches at Southwest Baltimore Charter School and Kristine Sieloff teaches at City Neighbors High School.

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