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Where Our ‘Last in the Nation’ Charter Law Has Gotten Maryland

Mary Wiltenburg/WYPR

A dozen years after Maryland passed one of the strictest charter school laws in the country, charter advocates are calling for changes to make starting and operating a charter school in Maryland easier.

At Patterson Park Public Charter School in East Baltimore principal Chad Kramer will show you what’s working about Maryland’s charter schools.  Middle schoolers are giving power point presentations on bloody Elizabethan sports, and kindergartners in Spanish class are up and about imitating animals.

That’s the school’s mission: to educate the whole child, in mind and body. Kramer, a veteran public school teacher, says what drew him to lead a charter was the opportunity to engage students creatively in hands-on learning. And he wasn’t seeing that even in highly rated traditional public schools.

“You know, I’d go in those places and they wouldn’t be a place I want to be,” he said. “Whereas when I walk around here I see kids generally pretty happy – these are some measures you can’t find on a test.”   

Yet when it comes to tests, Patterson Park and other city charters are having measurable success.  From 2011 to 2013, Kramer’s 7th and 8th graders outperformed comparable students in traditional schools on the Maryland School Assessment test by 40 percent in math and 20 percent in reading.

Nationwide, it’s harder to compare, but results are mixed. Generally, charter students do about the same on tests as those in traditional public schools. But poor kids, and African-American kids, do better.

The US charter movement was born two decades ago largely out of urban parents’ frustration with the lack of strong school options.  President Bill Clinton backed it early, but support has crossed party lines, and today 6,700 charter schools across the country serve 3 million kids. Here in Maryland, 47 schools have started in the past ten years, most of them in Baltimore City. 

Jocelyn Kehl, executive director of the Coalition of Baltimore Public Charter Schools, says they aren’t a mystery any more.

“It’s really time to look at: What are best practices, what have we seen work well in other places, and here?” she said. “And what do we know isn’t working so well?  And let’s fix that.”

In Annapolis this week, the focus of that fix is Maryland’s strict charter law, which the National Association of Public Charter Schools has ranked the worst in the nation. Its proponents say the law’s heavy-handedness has saved the state from the kinds of charter scandals that have made headlines in other states. 

But Nina Rees, the alliance’s executive director, disagrees.

“I don’t think that there’s anything right now in the Maryland state law that would have prohibited, for instance, some of the instances of malfeasance in some of the schools here in DC, where we’re from,” she said. “There are limits to what laws can do, and the only reason why some of these things haven’t happened is because you just don’t have a lot of charter schools in place.” 

Dennis McGrath, a researcher at the University of Baltimore’s Schafer Center for Public Policy, has spent the past year steeped in Maryland charters, writing a report commissioned by the legislature.  He likes the kind of small-scale educational innovation such schools can inspire.

 “When you have to move an entire system, the energy that one needs to move that system is just too big for any individual to think about,” he said.  “Whereas, if you can start your own school and then if people get to pay attention – ‘Oh you’re doing something here that’s decent!’ – then you might be able to move the system.”

McGrath’s team talked with 90 people – from principals and teachers, to state and local officials, to national charter operators – and recommended major changes to the state’s law:  give schools more flexibility to accept kids from their neighborhoods; allow schools to negotiate directly with teacher’s unions; provide more transparency about funding.  Gov. Hogan’s proposed reforms reflect many of their recommendations. 

You can take a look at the politics of Hogan’s charter school proposal here.