Some questions for the stakeholders in the charter-school funding dispute

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 2, 2015.
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After speaking with charter operators and education advocates, examining the issues, and reading the complaints outlined in the new lawsuit, here are some initial questions I have for the district, charter operators, and traditional schools. There are other important questions out there. People should continue to write them up, and reporters, parents, and community stakeholders should work together to press for some clear answers.

Questions for the District:

1. The charter operators allege that the district has not provided them with information on the methodology behind the charter per-pupil formula. They say that each year, the district presents them with “take-it-or-leave-it charter school per-pupil figures derived using varying (or no) calculation methodology, inflated estimates of overall System enrollment, and unsupported and dubious financial and budgetary figures.”

Given these claims, what is the district’s methodology behind the calculations, how has it changed over the years, and what steps has the district taken to be transparent? What steps, if any, will the district take to be more transparent going forward?

2. The charter operators say the method by which the district calculates per-pupil funding changes from year to year. How can the district ensure a formula that will be annually consistent, which is important to ensure its long-term viability? What factors, if any, would impede such a goal?

3. How has the per-pupil funding changed year to year for traditional district students? How, if at all, are those changes different from those seen in the charter sector?

4. Has the amount taken off the top for charter students grown over the years? If so, why and where does that money go?

5. The operators say they sent the district letters outlining their grievances, but that you did not respond to them directly. Do you feel that you were sufficiently transparent with them throughout this process? If not, why was information concealed?

6. The school funding formula proposed earlier this month would have made the possibility of maintaining, or expanding, integrated schools much more difficult. Are integrated schools a priority for the district when thinking about equity?

7. Maryland school systems receive substantial additional funding for low-income children. Because charters receive the same amount for every child, does some of the funding for low-income children currently go toward educational services for middle-class students?

Questions for Charter Operators Involved in the Lawsuit: 1. Part of your lawsuit is a demand for 98 percent of per-pupil spending with 2 percent taken off the top for the district. You also supported Gov. Hogan’s legislation this past spring that would have explicitly carved this formula into state law.

Many in the community have spoken out that such a formula would bankrupt the district and harm other students, because the real cost for administrative services is greater than 2 percent per charter student. Currently, the state is commissioning a study to determine what an appropriate figure would be, which will be due by the end of October 2016. Given the ongoing study, what motivates you to pursue litigation before it’s finished?

2. Do you believe that charters should bear proportional costs for special-education students who are more expensive to educate, or should those costs be borne primarily by traditional schools?

3. On the Marc Steiner show, Bobbi MacDonald, the executive director of The City Neighbors Foundation, noted that the majority of Baltimore charter schools are grassroots, mom-and-pop, integrated schools. She said, “That’s a vision for what the public school system could go towards.”

Unlike in other cities, Baltimore charters work closely with the district, have unionized schoolteachers, and are mostly run by former local educators or parents. Yet the charter operators involved in the lawsuit also backed Hogan’s bill, which carried the potential to greatly alter those dynamics.

What is the charter operators’ ideal vision for the future? Are you looking for a way to improve and sustain the existing system, or would you like to see Baltimore’s charter sector more closely resemble other urban districts? Are the operators planning to push for another bill that resembles the one introduced last spring?

4. You’ve alleged that not enough money goes to the classrooms because it’s getting sucked up in bureaucracy at North Avenue. You’ve also said that the district has failed to be sufficiently transparent about where its money goes. You seem to be saying both that the district is wasting money, and that you’re not sure where the money is going. Are there specific areas you believe the district is allocating too much money to, and if so, what are they?

5. There’s been a lot of rhetoric around about increased autonomy. What specific freedoms would you like from the district that you don’t currently have? Laying out those demands more concretely would help to advance a more productive public conversation, especially since some may be more controversial than others.

Questions for Traditional Schools:

1. What, if any, freedoms would you like to have that you currently lack? Are there any central services that you’d wish to opt out from, in exchange for cash, like charter schools?

2. What is your perspective on the relationship between North Avenue and school funding? What are you most concerned about in these debates?

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