A primer on the fight for Baltimore charter-school funding

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 2, 2015.
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In August I published a feature for City Paper, which explored the rising tensions in the Baltimore charter-school sector. Some charter operators felt that unless the laws are changed to allow them greater freedom and flexibility, then the state charter sector will never truly thrive. Teachers and paraprofessionals worried about what loosening the laws would mean for the quality of public education, and for their rights as union members. Currently, Maryland has one of the most strict charter laws in the country; however, its charters have also not had the kind of fraud, abuse, and mismanagement seen in other states. I reported on the history of funding disputes in Baltimore, recent legislative fight in Annapolis, and shifting charter dynamics across the state.

Almost two months later, a few new developments have taken place.

On Sept. 8, the district proposed a controversial funding formula that would have allocated per-pupil dollars to schools based on their specific student populations. (All charter students currently receive the same amount.) The district proposed a base level of $5,210 per pupil, with an additional $4,605 for low-income students and $4,573 for English-language learners. The proposed formula would have dramatically reduced funding for some of Baltimore’s integrated charter schools and likely increased funding to those with a higher proportion of low-income and ESOL students.

District officials said they were “prepared to continue conversations with charter operators and other stakeholders and to receive alternative proposals for charter funding” between September and November.

On Sept. 10, a group of Baltimore charter operators filed a lawsuit, alleging that the district gives charters less money than they are lawfully entitled, and has failed to live up to its contractual obligations around budget transparency. The plaintiffs are seeking a monetary judgment of at least $75,000. The lawsuit was not a direct response to the district’s Sept. 8 proposal.

On Sept. 22, the district withdrew its funding proposal, and University of Baltimore President and former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed to help mediate between the charters and the district. Four days later, advocates organized a rally at Lake Montebello Park in support of charter schools. The lawsuit is still ongoing.

As I’ve been following the story, I’ve noticed some issues generally absent from, or misrepresented in, the public discussion. It’s important to go beyond the talking points of whether one is “pro or anti-charter” or “cares about kids and opportunity.” I’d venture that most would agree that Baltimore charters have offered something important and valuable to the local educational landscape, and now it’s a matter of figuring out how to best support them in a way that doesn’t hurt other students, as well as figuring out what kind of charter sector Baltimore envisions for its future.

Next Wednesday, Oct. 7, there is a City Council meeting scheduled to discuss charter-school funding. According to the announcement, discussions will focus on ensuring “that adequate funds are allocated to all Baltimore students in accordance with State law.”

It’s important to understand why there are disagreements over the law.

In 2003, Maryland passed its state charter law, which said districts must provide “commensurate funding” between traditional schools and charters. It did not include a specific formula for doing so. In 2005, the Maryland State Board of Education ruled that “commensurate funding” should mean that charters receive 98 percent of per-pupil funds, and 2 percent should remain with the district for central administrative responsibilities.

A Department of Legislative Services (DLS) survey later determined that administrative expenditures make up closer to 10-14 percent of per-pupil spending, not 2 percent. Critics argue that if 98 percent were given to charters, then traditional public school students would be the ones to lose money and programming. Critics also say that providing 98 percent of per-pupil funding to charters would not leave enough money to cover those with severe disabilities.

In 2007, an Appeals Court upheld the 2005 decision. Despite this, the Baltimore school district says it needs more than 2 percent per charter student to fulfill its responsibilities, and so it has given charters less than 98 percent per pupil each year, leading to annual disputes.

In the spring of 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan tried to pass a bill that would have explicitly defined “commensurate funding” to mean that 98 percent of per-pupil dollars go to charters, and 2 percent stays with the district. Many experts testified that such a formula would simply be untenable for district finances. The charter operators involved in the current lawsuit backed Hogan’s bill.

The Maryland state legislature did not pass Hogan’s proposed funding formula; instead, it authorized a Maryland State Department of Education/ DLS study to get a clearer picture of how much administrative services actually cost in each district. The law reads, “the study must include a review of school system and school level expenditures disaggregated by specified categories, as well as the value of services being provided to public schools, and the potential availability of innovative financing for public charter school facilities that would not directly affect the State budget. The study must also include an assessment of the need to collect, on an ongoing basis, central office and school level expenditure data.” The study is due to be complete by Oct. 31, 2016.

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