Charter School Funding Adjusted in Md.

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Maryland State Board of Education laid the groundwork yesterday for how local school districts will determine the amount of money they devote to charter schools.

Sixteen charters are scheduled to open this fall, including two in Anne Arundel County and one in Prince George's County, representing the first wave of openings under a law championed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and passed in 2003. Only one charter, in Frederick County, is operating.

State and local school officials have been struggling to interpret the law, which both sides of the charter debate say is vague and confusing. And proponents of the law, including the governor, say local school boards, which along with the state board have authority to approve the privately run public schools, have been resistant to charter schools.

The hot-button issue lately has been the law's requirement that charter schools receiving funding "commensurate" with the amount spent in traditional public schools.

What that means has been open to interpretation. Last month, the board heard three appeals from charter schools -- one from Prince George's and two from Baltimore -- contesting their school systems' plans to pay them in a combination of cash and services.

In rulings on those appeals this month, the state board outlined a funding formula that would simply divide a school system's operating budget by its enrollment to calculate its spending per pupil. Charters would then receive that amount in cash for each student enrolled.

But yesterday, the board altered that arrangement after local school officials protested that the formula could cost them thousands more per student than they expected -- and could afford. They argued that the formula inflated the per-pupil average because it included fixed administrative costs and special grants and expenditures for students who are poor or have disabilities. That could result in charter schools receiving more money per pupil than traditional schools do, they said. School officials in Baltimore threatened to file a complaint in federal court.

In response, the board voted unanimously yesterday to allow school systems to subtract federal Title I money, designated for low-income students, from the amount per pupil that they give charter schools if students do not qualify for it. School systems will also have to negotiate transportation arrangements with the charters for students with disabilities. They will also deduct 2 percent from their per-pupil donations to charters to cover such fixed costs as data collection and administration of state standardized tests.

"We're trying to comply with the law, and the law itself leaves an awful lot of unanswered questions," state board President Edward L. Root said in an interview. "We're trying to figure out a way that's fair to everybody to do this."

Assistant Attorney General Valerie V. Cloutier said the problem is that school systems cannot accurately define how much money they spend per student -- the number is muddied by such factors as building costs, staffing allocations and grants.

"Money does not follow the child," she said.

Board members said their decisions were intended to give guidance to local school systems as they race to finalize their arrangements with charter schools in time for them to open in the fall. But some local school officials said the ruling makes the process more complicated.

"The explanation doesn't really make things much clearer," said David Stone, who handles charter schools for Baltimore schools. "I'm just curious to see if anybody finds this to be helpful."

Stone said city school officials will review the revised funding formula before deciding whether to file a legal complaint.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick and the board acknowledged that the formula probably will be revised in the future.

But the real problem, Root said, lies in the law itself, which he called "notable for its lack of clarity."

"There's probably a general feeling . . . that this law is going to have to be revisited," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company