Montgomery County Taxpayers League

The Voice of Taxpayers of Montgomery County, Maryland

May 13, 2015: “Are Charter Schools a More Effective Solution to Closing the Achievement Gap?”

Questions sent to Jean Allen in advance of the meeting of May 13, 2015, and her responses:

Topic: “Are Charter Schools a More Cost-Effective Solution to Closing the Achievement Gap?”

Speakers: Jeanne Allen, Founder, Center for Education Reform

1. What is the mission and what are the overall goals of public charter schools?  How do they differ from the mission and goals of regular public schools.

2.  Are the salaries and benefits (health and retirement) of public charter school teachers the same as those of their counterparts in public schools?  If not, how challenging is it to hire highly qualified teachers in public charter schools?

3.  Should public charter schools be authorized by local school Boards?  Does this represent a conflict of interest for local school boards?  Should authorization be granted at the state level?

4. What is the oversight and accountability for charter schools?  Is a CPA audit required?

5. Currently, there are 47 public charter schools in Maryland, with a great number concentrated in districts with majorities of high risk kids: Baltimore City (31) and PG county (10).  How do public charter schools deal with the Achievement Gap?  Do you have any statistics on how public charter schools have fared in closing the achievement gap in these schools vs other public schools in the same neighborhoods.

6.  Can you list some of the reasons as to why there is such opposition to opening public charter schools in Montgomery County?

The following additional questions were received 2 days ago:

7.  What specific services and programs would a charter school provide to families that are not currently provided by public schools?

8.  How would students be chosen for admission?

9.  How would the process avoid cherry picking children only from the most engaged families?

10.  What is the plan for reaching out to a wide range of families (not meetings that poor families won’t attend or even hear about)?

Next meeting: Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Comments by Jeanne Allen:

Ms. Allen did not answer the questions directly but instead responded to them in her overall comments, which follow:

Charters schools are a 25-year-old movement with the first one opening in St. Paul, Minnesota. Schools need leadership and flexibility, Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have charter schools but the laws governing them vary widely. The important thing about charter schools is that parents choose the school, whereas traditionally the public school chooses the student geographically.

The mission of charters schools is the same as for public schools. Both have to meet the same standards. The 7000 charters schools in America serve over 3 million students. About 30-40% of charters schools specialize in some area such as science, arts or even at-risk students. There are 31 charter schools in Baltimore City and 10 in Prince Georges County, school districts with larger numbers of at risk students. In contrast, Montgomery County has no charter schools. Resistance by the Teachers’ Unions and the State Legislators is the primary reason for the limited number of charter schools in the state.

Public schools are “public” because taxpayers pay for them. A charter school is much like a private school except that members of the charter school’s board are voted on by all the parents of the students. Average voter turnout for public school board elections is 10%. Charter Schools enroll students by lottery and are not school systems per se but are rather systems of schools.

In a Supreme Court decision Sandra Day O’Connor said that parents are the conduit of funding so funding should follow the student regardless of what school he attends.

Even the best public schools in the nation waste at least 35% of their funding. Most are funded by formulas, which waste money.

Maryland has weak laws for charter schools; they do not allow charter schools the flexibility to operate the way they would like. Local school boards in Maryland grant charters and until the law recently signed by the governor, the applicant for opening a charter school could appeal a negative decision to the state Board of Education. The new law takes away that appeal avenue. Rather than having the local school board grant charters, that decision should be left to universities, municipalities and others not having a conflict of interest. New York’s chartering authority resides in the office of the chancellor of the state university system. Could we do the same with the University of Maryland?

The graduation rate of charter schools is higher than that of public schools. Charter schools in Maryland—most of which are in Baltimore city and Prince Georges County—are required to follow all the rules and regulations that apply to public schools. Teachers in charter schools have the same pay scale as local public schools and seem to perform better academically. About 15% of charter schools that have ever opened in America have closed. That is good because it shows that a failing enterprise should close, unlike the experience with public schools.

The Empowerment Academy in Baltimore’s Sandtown is successful because of parental involvement—not so with the New Song public school in the same area. Also, those who work in charter schools are goal-oriented and do not like to be told what to do.. But teachers last only 3-4 years because they get burnt out from the involvement.

Opposition to charter schools is due to “we’ve always done it this way’. But the US. Department of Education is supportive of the charter school movement. Because charter schools get less funding per pupil than public schools do, they have to be more creative (“necessity is the mother of invention”). Students are chosen by lottery although spaces are set aside for siblings. About 10% of charter schools are worse than public schools; 40% are equal; charter schools do not “cherry-pick”.

Note: The current office vacancy rate in our economically slumping county is 24%.  This vacant space offers a very cost-effective way to locate charters, reduce requirements for building new schools and keep use of portables to a minimum.  High facilities costs were cited as an MCPS problem in the last state audit.

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