Why the hesitance over keeping KIPP charter schools in Maryland?

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 8:21 PM

TEACHERS UNIONS are in the news, and not always in a flattering way. The stories can seem to vilify teachers unfairly, the unions say, and we agree. Most teachers work hard, sometimes to tranformative effect. And yet when their unions insist on defending bad teachers or undermining schools that work, the teachers' reputations suffers.

Take the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools in Baltimore. A year ago, the teachers union agreed to concessions allowing the extended day and school year central to KIPP's success, thus averting a threat to the schools' operation. That agreement is set to expire, and it's unclear whether KIPP will be able to win a new agreement. If it can't, the schools may have to close.

Maryland law requires charter school teachers to belong to the union in their school districts and be subject to local contract rules. Such a requirement, unusual in places where charters operate, undercuts the core strength of these independent public schools - the ability to tailor programs to student needs and their own distinct characters. The two KIPP schools in Baltimore, Ujima Village Academy and Harmony Academy, stress extra classroom hours to boost the achievement of disadvantaged, minority students. KIPP teachers were among the highest-paid in Baltimore, but union officials made an issue of the pay in 2009, causing the school to curtail hours and lay off staff members. The issue attracted national attention and last year the Baltimore Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, signed a one-year agreement allowing KIPP to retain its programs while providing additional pay more in keeping with its budget realities.

Negotiations for a new agreement have apparently hit a snag, with KIPP insisting on a multi-year understanding. KIPP officials are reluctant to invest in facilities or programs if KIPP has to worry year to year about the viability of its programs. Accordingly, legislation to allow KIPP to operate in Baltimore has been introduced; it would empower teachers to decide, by a vote of at least 80 percent, on extending the school day and year at an affordable rate. KIPP officials have made clear that, lacking a multi-year agreement or a legislative remedy, the charter will cease its Maryland operations at the end of the school year.

To our mind, the proposed legislation doesn't go far enough. It would apply only to Baltimore City and KIPP when there is a need for flexibility throughout the state. Nonetheless, even this modest measure faces an uncertain future with legislative sources telling us the teachers union is opposed. A call for comment to the teachers union went unanswered. We would have asked: Why would you not do everything to back a school that educates poor children and that employs teachers who believe in its mission?

Disappointingly, the state board of education has apparently chosen not to take a position. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who professes his support and appreciation for KIPP, has similarly remained silent. A spokesman for the governor said the issue is under review. That there's even a question about taking steps to secure KIPP and its successful programs for Maryland's most needy students does not reflect well on a state that regularly boasts about its role as a national leader in education.


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