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Uncertain Future For Thousands In Charter School Lottery

Mary Wiltenburg


Baltimore City’s 32 public charter schools are holding their lotteries for next year’s students this week. All over town, parents are sweating it out as they wait for word about their kids’ applications.

Throughout the week nervous parents cluster in gyms and multipurpose rooms across the city to wait as their kids’ educational fates are decided by a process that pits them against friends and neighbors.

The lotteries are as different as the schools hosting them: from the crowd deciphering the results of a random number generator at Patterson Park Public Charter School, to the handful of people sitting around a table at Midtown Academy, drawing index cards and cheering each other’s efforts to pronounce tricky names.

The common denominator is worry.  At a time when charter schools are hotly debated across the country, here in Baltimore, there are not nearly enough charter seats for kids who want them. Sarah Berger has been hitting lotteries all week. She says she and her husband believe in public education, but they’re discouraged by their neighborhood school in Lauraville.  This winter, they applied to nine charter schools for their 5-year-old son Jonathan.  Monday and Tuesday, he struck out at four.  But on Wednesday, he won a spot at a school she doesn’t know anything about yet.

Even so, she says, “it was a tremendous, tremendous relief.” And on one more night, she’s at Roots and Branches in West Baltimore for that school’s lottery.

Charters are free, public schools, exempt from some of the rules that govern traditional public schools so that they can be innovators, trying out new approaches on a small scale. In the past two decades, they’ve exploded across the country; since 2003, they’ve taken off here.  The Coalition of Baltimore Public Charter Schools says one in seven city students now attends a charter, and probably 6,000 more are on charter waiting lists.

Marcia Simpson, of the Baltimore City School's Office of New Initiatives, which oversees charters, says Maryland has few charter schools outside Baltimore. That’s largely because the state has one of the strictest charter laws in the country. Governor Larry Hogan has vowed to change that. He’s backing legislation introduced on Monday to expand charters in the state.

Jocelyn Kehl, the Baltimore coalition’s executive director, says the bill strikes a good balance.

“I think it keeps the things that are good about our law, which is good oversight, being tied to the local school board, I think that’s really important,” she says.  “But I do think it gives flexibility where it has not easily been achieved before – and on a case-by-case basis; it isn’t sweeping.”

Meantime, demand far outstrips the schools’ capacity.  That’s painful every year, says Kathleen O’Hanlon, principal of Midtown Academy.

“It always is a heartbreak. Every one of those cards is a family and a little one who’s learned to tie their shoes,” she says. “The thought that for 285 families, you’re looking for an experience like Midtown, when there are only 20 open seats in our kindergarten – it’s heartbreaking, and it speaks to the need for more quality seats.”

But back at Roots and Branches, the news is good.  Jonathan gets the last spot in the incoming Kindergarten class.  Now to decide whether to take it – or to give that chance to one of the dozens of kids lined up behind him.

Corrected Marcia Simpson title on 2/13