Charter schools arrive in the suburbs
Some people see charter schools as the salvation of American education; others see charter schools as an attempt to “privatize” and eviscerate our public schools. This debate has now arrived on our doorstep, in Montgomery County, as two substantial charter school applicants are on track for implementation. One charter school, Crossway, was recently approved by the Board of Education and another, Global Gardens, is in the second stage of what is shaping up to be a lengthy and complicated appeal process.
Charter schools, an idea intended to promote innovation in education through the power of competition, have naturally held the greatest appeal in places where the local school systems have been the most dysfunctional — i.e. in urban centers with generally low levels of education, concentrated poverty, and high crime rates. But charter schools are not restricted solely to cities. As we’ve seen in recent news, charter school applicants have been popping up in suburban school districts around the country. In these districts, the appeal of charters is not so much looking for a way out of dysfunctional schools as it is parents looking for a way to expand and improve their child’s educational opportunities without resorting to private schools — which is still not an option for most families.
In the well-to-do suburban district of Millburn, New Jersey, a group of parents has been approved to open a Chinese-immersion elementary charter school intended to provide language learning opportunities that are not currently available in the district. Matthew Stewart, a leader of “Millburn Parents Against Charter Schools,” sees the Hanyu school as an attempt by some parents to get a “custom-tailored” education, which he sees as draining resources from the “regular” public schools, which, in his view, already provide a perfectly adequate education.
Many in Montgomery County are likely to share Mr. Stewart’s view of charter schools; however, I do not.
In examining the possible impact to MCPS students of charter schools it’s important to understand what a Maryland charter school is and what it isn’t. A charter school is a public school, not a quasi-private one. The administration of a charter school is every bit as accountable to its students, the parents of those students and to the public who support that charter school through tax dollars, as is any other public school. Like other public schools, charters are still accountable for educational results through the administration of MSAs and HSAs. Other forms of accountability, though, are implemented quite differently.
Regular public schools generally get their marching orders on curriculum and instruction from a central office, whereas a public charter school lays out a plan describing its own marching orders on curriculum and instruction (its charter) in advance. In a regular public school, school-level administrators are responsible for ensuring that “central office” policies on curriculum and instruction are being implemented, whereas in a public charter school, its administrators are responsible for ensuring that the purposes and regulations spelled out in its charter are being implemented. Others within the chartering authority are responsible for ensuring that such schools are indeed living up to their charters, and have the authority to revoke the charters of schools that are not.
Under Maryland law, a “public charter school” is a nonsectarian public school of choice. Md. Code Ann. Education §9-102. Such schools are chartered and overseen by the county school board for the county within which the school operates, and are considered a part of the public school system for that county. Charter schools are open to all students in the county, and if there are more applicants than spaces available, admission must be determined by lottery.
Charter schools are not allowed to reject students on the basis of a disability, any more than any other public school is. Charter schools are also still accountable for the education of students with disabilities, just as any other public school is: Charter schools must comply with the IDEA, and with Maryland state regulations implementing the IDEA and the ADA. Maryland law spells this out in detail, requiring county school boards to inform charter applicants about their obligations under the IDEA and under §504 of the ADA, as well as to ensure that such schools’ plans and policies support federal, state and county initiatives in Special Education. Md. Code Ann. Education §9-107.
In disciplinary matters, Maryland charter schools have taken a similar path. Although each charter school is free to craft its own unique Code of Student Conduct, frequently requiring students and parents to sign “conduct contracts,” the review and appeal process with regard to disciplinary infractions remains the same. Appeal of a disciplinary infraction may be first made to the board of directors for the charter school, but beyond that, appeal is then made to the appropriate “central office” personnel for the chartering authority (in our case, to the MCPS Appeals and Transfer Office). From there, any appeal would follow the standard path of appeal to the local Board of Education and then to the state Board of Education.
I am in favor of educational policies that help students get the kind of education they need. In fact, a “custom-tailored” education is exactly what we try to help students with disabilities obtain, every day. Why this should be only be a part of our thinking for students with disabilities is not clear; the education of students without disabilities should not be limited by a one-size-fits-all mentality.
I don’t buy the argument that this somehow takes funding away from our public schools. Remember, charter schools are public schools. In Maryland (as in most states), public funding for education follows the student; charter school students are funded at 98% of the per pupil expenditure by county. City Neighbors Charter School v. Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, 169 Md. App. 609, 906 A.2d 388 (2006) .
In many states, teacher certification can be different for charter school teachers. In Maryland, not only do charter school teachers have to be state-certified, but they are also considered state employees — as are other public school teachers. Md. Code Ann. Education §9-105. Maryland, a strong union state, specifies that charter school teachers are covered by the county’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ employee union (in our case, MCEA). Md. Code Ann. Education §9-108. Thus, not only are charter school teachers in Maryland held to the same professional standards as all other public school teachers in the state, they are also protected by the same public employee unions.
Given the protections in place for students and teachers in Maryland charter schools, I really only see an upside here for Montgomery County. Public charter schools, thoughtfully implemented and supportively overseen by a school board and school system looking to help the charter succeed, should simply be considered an attractive adjunct to the many other positive programs and initiatives already in place within MCPS.
— Karen Smith, Esq.
NOTE: THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THOSE OF HOOVERLAW, LLC.
Karen Smith, Esq. formerly served as “Of Counsel” to HooverLaw, LLC in matters involving education and special education law as well as other education law.
 The State Board of Education can also charter and oversee such schools (as it has in Baltimore City), but the state Board is considered a “secondary chartering authority” under the law. Md. Code Ann. Education §9-103.