Md. Charter Schools Show Strong Gains

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

BALTIMORE, Dec. 6 -- With 12 new charter schools in this city and two in Anne Arundel County, advocates for the independently operated, publicly funded schools have gained a small but solid foothold in Maryland this fall.

In all, 3,321 students, from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, attend 15 charter schools statewide, according to a report released here Tuesday. The enrollment is up more than 3,000 from the previous academic year, when Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick was the state's lone charter school.

Maryland now has more charter schools than Virginia -- which has three, serving about 200 students -- but far fewer than the District -- which has 52, serving nearly 18,000 students, according to state and D.C. officials.

But the advances have been slow and the obstacles have remained high since enactment of Maryland's charter law in 2003, a State Board of Education review shows.

Board members complained that the state law leaves unanswered major funding and regulatory questions about charter schools.

"We just don't know what the rules are," said board Chairman Edward L. Root of Cumberland. "We're building the airplane as it's taxiing down the runway."

Still, the opening of 14 charter schools this year was a milestone because of the political and bureaucratic struggles that preceded them. Advocates say the schools are providing new options for parents of disadvantaged and minority students. More than 70 percent of students in Maryland charter schools are black, and more than 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, a poverty indicator.

Some board members urged state lawmakers to rewrite the law. "Let's face it," said J. Henry Butta of Davidsonville. "That law stinks, the way it was passed."

Prince George's County is emblematic of the uncertainty facing charter schools. A proposed charter school in the county's Marlow Heights community won preliminary approval but has not opened because of a funding dispute. Five other applications are pending in Prince George's, said Patrick Crain of the state Department of Education.

Among them is the Potomac Public Charter School, proposed for the Fort Washington area. Deborah Driver, one of the organizers, said the obstacles to opening a charter school in the county are immense because the school system wields power of approval over a would-be competitor. "It's like you make an application to McDonald's to see if you can open up a Burger King," Driver said.

She said the Potomac proposal assumes a funding level of $5,800 per pupil from the county system, which she called "absurdly low."

The county school system has an operating budget of nearly $1.4 billion a year and its enrollment is about 134,000. That amounts to more than $10,000 per pupil. But much of that money pays for countywide services or is set aside for specific uses under state and federal law.

In Prince George's, school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) denied that the county system has resisted charter schools. "I think they're welcome," Tignor said. "I really do."

But Tignor said money remains a sticking point. A Prince George's judge last month sided with the county school system in its lawsuit over charter funding, ruling that the state should revise the guidelines.

State education officials said one of the most contentious parts of the charter law requires funding for charter schools that is "commensurate" with what other public schools receive -- a provision that raises as many questions as answers.

Crain said charter school funding amounts to $5,379 per pupil in Baltimore, $8,754 in Anne Arundel and $6,838 in Frederick. How such sums compare with what other public schools receive is a matter of debate.

About 20 charter applications are pending or expected for the next school year, Crain said. Among them are one in Howard County, one in St. Mary's County, three in Anne Arundel and the five in Prince George's. Most of the rest are from Baltimore.

One of the primary rationales for charter schools is to cut systemic rules and regulations to allow educational innovation. But Stephanie Simms, a founder of the Patterson Park Public Charter School in Baltimore, told the state board that red tape persists.

"I can't tell you how many times our principal receives an e-mail [from the city school system] that she needs to respond to within 24 hours on a policy that comes out of nowhere," Simms said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company