Baltimore charter school agreement eases KIPP's way

Monday, March 21, 2011; 9:28 AM

THE KIPP CHARTER school network in Baltimore reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday with the local teachers union that averts a threatened shutdown of its acclaimed schools. This is good news for the schools' parents, students and teachers, who for the next 10 years won't have to worry about any interruption of KIPP educational programs. The development, though, leaves untouched a Maryland law that is notoriously inhospitable to charter schools.

The agreement in principle between the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Baltimore Teachers Union resolves a dispute that pitted the charter program's insistence on a lengthened school day against demands for additional pay at the union rate. Under the 10-year agreement, teachers would be able to work a nine-hour day (down from the current 9½ hours) and participate in summer school in exchange for receiving a 20 percent pay premium. The agreement, which largely mimics terms of a one-year agreement reached last year, provides the long-term stability KIPP so desperately needs.

News that an agreement had been reached was announced, according to the Baltimore Sun, moments before a state House committee was to convene a hearing on a bill that would have allowed charters in Baltimore generally to have flexibility with union rules. Maryland is one of the few states that mandate that charter-school teachers be covered by the provisions of locally negotiated contracts, thus undermining the agility and autonomy crucial to successful charters. The hearing room in Annapolis was jammed with parents and students from the two KIPP schools, Ujima Village Academy and Harmony Academy; the Sun reported that they burst into tears and shouted when the agreement was disclosed. Lawmakers called off the hearing and pulled back the legislation, cheering the news of the agreement.

Legislators instead should be asking themselves what they could do to replicate the experience of the KIPP parents and students who crowded that hearing room. KIPP may be staying put in Baltimore, but its expansion plans are not likely to include other parts of Maryland, given the program's struggle to accomplish what is taken for granted in other states. Why did it have to take the embarrassing threat of a pullout to safeguard the long school day that has been central to the high achievement of students at Ujima Village Academy? More important, why should this benefit be reserved for just these two schools in Baltimore?

Other problems with Maryland's charter law - in particular the effective veto that local school boards can wield over the approval of charters - have caused the state to trail the nation in the growth of these important alternatives for parents and children. Notwithstanding the cheers heard this week in Annapolis, that's no cause for celebration.

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