The Mayor and Public Charter Schools

Posted Friday, March 17, 2017

Baltimore City's Mayor Catherine Pugh.
Baltimore City's Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Mayor Pugh has been talking a lot about charter schools lately. This isn’t a bad thing. I’ve been arguing for a while now that we need conversations about charter schools in Baltimore City that are less political and more practical. Having the Mayor’s voice as part of the conversation is critically important. She’s said some things that are close to correct, some things that are close to wrong, and some things that are confusing and ultimately create divisions. In today’s post, which is longer than usual, I’ll try and make sense of things.

Mayor Pugh began publicly talking about charter schools last winter. During an interview on Maryland Morning, Tom Hall mistakenly referred to the Baltimore Design School as a charter school. She tersely interrupted Hall, at the 12:32 mark, to say the Design School “is not a charter school, it’s a public school.”

She is correct: the Baltimore Design School is a public school. It was created through a partnership with City Schools. The school system has a long history of creating schools in partnership with local organizations, be they universities or nonprofits. New Song Academy and The Stadium School are two such schools, both of which started in the 1990s as part of the New Schools Initiative. Johns Hopkins University has partnered with the school system on numerous initiatives. So has Civic Works.

All of these schools have different governing structures and missions. They are all public schools. Perhaps the most innovative work related to the Design School was the facility, which is quite impressive. The school system worked closely with Ms. Pugh and her fellow founders to finance the renovation of a dilapidated building just south of North Ave. Interestingly, the debt service related to the project (see page 110 in the linked PDF), $1.7 million annually, is part of the overall debt service the school system now carries. So while the Mayor is correct to say, in the same interview, that the she worked to help “build the first new school in the city in 30 years” it did come with a cost. And that cost, most interestingly, is shared by all schools across the city, including charter schools, which pay a portion of the city’s debt service as part of the charter funding formula. Of further interest, many of these charter schools do this even as they pay for their own debt service related to acquisition and renovations of their own non-public facilities.

All of the schools listed above represent different approaches to education in Baltimore City. All of them are public schools. Charter schools similarly represent a different approach. They, too, are public schools. The Mayor should know this. To separate public charter schools from other public schools, be they traditional or neighborhood schools, schools with entry-based criteria, or contract schools such as the Baltimore Design School or The Bard School, is to blur or conflate or divide the educational landscape in the city. It’s unclear why she chooses to do this.

More recently, the Mayor has had more to say about charters. The Baltimore Sun reported on March 9th that the mayor believes the school system needs to re-examine its structural costs, including funding for a large network of public charter schools.

It’s hard to infer exactly what the Mayor means by this comment. Broadly speaking, Mayor Pugh is right: the school system does in fact need to re-examine its structural costs. It’s unclear what the reference to funding for charter schools means. Is she saying the funding formula needs to be revisited? Is she saying the network of charters is too large? We can’t really tell.

In her State of the City address, given yesterday, Mayor Pugh continued to talk about charter schools. Below is exactly what she said, quoted from the transcript, with specific comments and questions following each statement.

"Our school system has been faced with closing low populated public schools while charter public schools have grown to over 30, more than in the entire state - and even though public charter schools receive more per pupil allocations - they too face funding challenges."

My first issue with this statement is that it’s terribly passive. Every single public charter school that has been opened or closed in Baltimore City over the last decade-plus has done so with the recommendation of the CEO and the approval of the school board. We have closed “low populated” traditional public schools. We have also closed public charter schools. Charter schools aren’t this amoeba-like thing that have dropped down from the sky. Yes, there is a charter school law which requires school districts to accept and review applications. School boards remain the authorizer, however. And in nearly all jurisdictions around the state, school boards have figured out ways to either have no charter schools at all or very few of them.

Our school board could have taken the same approach. They have chosen not to for a very simple reason: Our school system has struggled for decades now. Funding is a part of this. Poverty is a part of this. Crime is a part of this. Leadership is a part of this. There are a dozen different reasons for the struggles. Most of them, perhaps even all of them, are completely valid. The point is that the school board, the school system, previous mayors, and communities around the city all recognize this. And we are all striving to confront these realities and respond to them. With respect to these challenges, the school system has attempted to do any number of things. They’ve championed school choice. They championed small schools. They championed community partnerships that have led to contracts to run schools, which is what the Design School has. The school system has also, at times, intentionally sought to use charter schools to strategically address challenges. Why all of this work? Because the city is struggling to deal with very real issues. In the face of this there are really no easy answers. Charter schools are here now, in part, in response to these issues. They are here because they are needed.

On the Mayor’s final point, about the funding, she is right: charter schools do in fact receive more direct funding, which she refers to as the per pupil. That’s part of the agreement that charters have with the school system. And despite this, charter schools, public charter schools, are also facing funding challenges.

As I’ve said previously, this budget crisis has deeply affected all schools in the city. Some get a punch in the gut. Some get a hit in the head. Some could potentially be crippled. It’s a pick-your-poison scenario. We’re all facing it.

"What is the difference between the School for the Arts, Green Street Academy, City Neighbors and the Baltimore Design School from other schools in Baltimore? I can tell you; these schools have a Board of Directors made up of concerned citizens who believe in quality education and are willing to provide resources through fundraising and private donations to assure those students have the very best tools, teachers and learning experiences to contribute to their students’ success.  Public Private Partnerships are essential to the success of our city and to the success of our children. Every school in Baltimore should have a Board of Directors who care about the future of our children and are willing to give of their time, talent and resources.  I challenge the citizens of Baltimore to provide that same support for every school in Baltimore.  Those who have and will accept this challenge are the leaders that should serve on our school board because they believe in the possibilities of our students."

The Mayor, here, points to one difference between the schools she mentioned and traditional or neighborhood schools. She’s right, certain schools in the city have boards. And schools like City and Poly also have very strong alum groups which provide supports. Other schools around the city have strong parent organizations.

Here’s the deal, however: things like boards, and alum groups, and family councils or school improvement teams—all of these groups can provide useful and important structures to support schools. But they are, ultimately, just organizing structures and organization structures have the potential to do good and they have the potential to bury schools in red tape. Remember that City Schools already has a board, The Baltimore City Board of Commissioners. If all schools around the city also have boards, there may end up being a lot of competing interests. Boards can be supportive but they tend to also want power and control. 

Ultimately, what I’m saying here is that as far as school reforms go, mandating or requiring that schools have boards is a possible place to start but it won’t get the school system very far, even if implemented well, and it is fraught with potential downsides. Successful schools, in other words, may or may not have boards, but they all share other, more important, characteristics, including great leadership, committed and smart teachers, and a sense of collective purpose.

"The dilemma for the school system is that they must determine how, with the growth of charter public schools they manage, layoff or absorb teachers, principals and administrators that are not chosen to work in those charter public schools.  Structurally the system can’t accommodate both with our shrinking enrollment.  Every time a charter public school chooses to hire a teacher that is not already in the public school system that is being down sized, it creates a greater structural issue for the entire public school system.  So I ask the school board with its CEO to come up with a plan that will not see us grappling with this problem year after year."

There’s a lot going on with this statement. I could talk about any number of issues related to employment. These issues certainly affect traditional schools as well. Ask any great principal in this city what the number one factor is in the ability to create a school and she or he will tell you it’s the ability to hire good people. And in making those decisions, those principals most certainly don’t want to hire from a limited pool. They want autonomy. So too do charter school leaders and operators.

The Mayor seems to be pinning this problem on charters. She should go back a bit. The school system faces two essential problems with staffing, maybe three. First, we have declining enrollment. She gets this. What she doesn’t get is that all teachers in the traditional schools and the public charter schools are in the public school system. Again, she’s trying to make a distinction between public schools and public charter schools and it falls flat. Collectively, we’re all dealing with the very same problem: the school system is losing enrollment. When this happens, fewer teachers will be needed, fewer school buildings will be needed. This is the way the world works. If you don’t think so, just look at Carroll County, which is facing the same dynamic. Within this dynamic some schools remain stable. Some traditional public schools and some public charter schools maintain enrollment and have large waiting lists. Still, these schools suffer because the overall school system is in decline.

The other point to take seriously is what happens when you give schools, when you give boards or principals or whatever governing structure you want, autonomy. When they can choose they will most certainly make staffing decisions. And when those decisions are made, there will be surplus staff. What happens to that surplus staff? Previous CEOs preferred school-based autonomy so they didn’t have to force staff on schools. Unless there is a force reduction, those staff members who can’t get positions in schools are still guaranteed a job. Nobody really wants to face down this reality, which is part of the collectively bargained agreements. This is a huge challenge and it can’t be ignored, however. It is most certainly not a problem caused by charter schools.

Mayor Pugh, as a final point, seems to understand how hard it is to manage a network of charter schools inside a larger school system. Essentially, she’s concluding that “the system can’t accommodate both with our shrinking enrollment.”

She’s absolutely correct here. We’ve got two systems running, the larger school system of traditional public schools and a smaller system of public charter schools. They don’t necessarily have to be at odds with one another, but they currently are more often than not because our current structures don’t effectively support both. We are tangled up together. We are dependent on one another.

The Mayor calls for the CEO and the school board to come up with a plan that will not see us grappling year after year. I’ll say again: This problem is so complex and so challenging that it can’t be delegated out. It needs focused work from the best thinkers in our city. The Mayor has to take the lead on this work. She has to be willing to get directly involved. She can’t just ask others to figure it out. Most significantly, when she talks about traditional public schools and public charter schools she must stop dividing them into different groups: they are part and parcel of the very same city school system. It may well be that a true division of charters and traditional schools is the best way to go, a division that could well be tightly managed by the school board and even the mayor. I’m still pondering this, thinking about what it looks like. I do know that what we’re currently doing hasn’t worked—and won’t work. 

Tags: ABI , Afya Baltimore Inc. , afya public charter school , Baltimore City Public Schools , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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Chartering Schools in the City Must Change

Posted Friday, March 10, 2017

Tunbridge PCS is the second school we opened, in 2010, in the former St. Mary's of the Assumption Catholic School building on York Road in Govans.
Tunbridge PCS is the second school we opened, in 2010, in the former St. Mary's of the Assumption Catholic School building on York Road in Govans.

A few years ago I was talking with a colleague who believed that charter schools got too much money. It was a reflective conversation, friendly and thoughtful. On most issues in the world he and I were probably aligned. Not this one. At that point the charter per pupil was about $9,500 dollars. I asked him what he thought the number should be. He wasn’t totally sure but $8,500 sounded about right. I wasn’t surprised to hear that number. In the many conversations that I’ve had with politicians, senior leadership at the school district or others that thought charters got too much money, $8,500 seemed to be the magic number. There was an air to the number, a mythical quality to it. Get to $8,500 and all is better for the school system.

So, I asked, what happens if that’s the number? What happens if charters are funded at that level and immediately face financial destabilization because of rising expenses and the contractual demands of agreements with lenders? What happens? He wasn’t sure. He finally concluded that the best of the charter folks were entrepreneurs. We’d just figure it out.

The charter school funding for this year is now set to be under $8,500, if you include a new bevy of fees the district would like to mandate. I’m here to tell you that while I consider myself a skilled manager and highly competent leader of schools, I have no idea how to “figure it out.” I can also tell you, as if you don’t know, that all is not well with the school system.

There are only choices to make, poor ones, especially if the financial environment doesn’t improve in the future. Those choices can be summed up this way: How much do I cut in order to survive and for how long can this be sustained? And, furthermore, does sustaining/surviving become the highest expectation that we have for ourselves and our schools?

I would say, loudly and with determination, no. As in: No!

It feels good to say this. Just as it feels good and necessary to rally for more money for our school system and fight to not lose what we love about our schools. But the reality of the situation still sits there, a reality that’s big enough to crush the spirit of any spirited and entrepreneurial thinker, a reality that must be confronted and grappled with and resolved.

Here’s the reality. There are three things that can happen with charter schools in Baltimore City. They are:

First, we can continue on with the way things are. What that means is the district and the charters dispute most everything, but the school system has enough leverage, largely because it’s bigger and more powerful, to control the charters and outlast them. Since chartering began in the city in 2005,  we’ve had six superintendents (including interims) and countless others in senior leadership positions. The charters, for the most part, have had incredible continuity over time. The same people have been doing this work for a very long time. They aren’t likely to go anywhere soon, but they can’t go on forever. They can be worn down. And so the fight could go on. The district’s enrollment might continue to decline. Revenue from the state could continue to be flat. More and more pressure will be introduced into the relationship. Charter school leaders will be less and less able to figure things out and/or survive. (Interestingly, this last dynamic is one that many of our great traditional school principals face: outlasting the system is a good fight—but it rarely goes on for long.)

The second option is for charters to simply wait for a different environment to present itself from either the state or federal government. This scenario goes something like this: Governor Hogan wins a second term and maybe Republicans make some in-roads in the General Assembly. Maybe Maryland redistricts, favoring Republicans more in the out years. Maybe the state school board becomes more active. Maybe a lot happens at the federal level to force the charter issue in Maryland. A lot of ifs, yes, but not out of the realm of possibility. If Maryland turned from a blue to a purple or even a red state, charter laws would change. I’m of the mind that if this were to happen the landscape would almost certainly become even more confusing and chaotic. If this sort of scenario were to happen, the city and its residents would not be happy about it for any number of reasons linked to societal, racial and political issues. Thus charter operators would have new autonomies and perhaps more direct funding. They’d also likely be pariahs. No thanks. Outside operators might well come into this environment to set up shop. Those that have lived and worked in the city for years and years would take great pause. That I know.

The third option is for the city itself, with charter leaders, to figure it out. Let me be more specific: the CEO of the school system, Dr. Santelises, and Mayor Pugh, need to commit to working on this critically important issue. It’s the only way. I read the other day that the Mayor said, "You pay the school CEO $285,000 a year to run the school system. Let's get it right. If you've got to downsize, you've got to downsize. You've got to figure it out. I'm not running the school system."

This isn’t good enough. In fact, this is no better than saying charter school leaders are entrepreneurs so they should just figure it out. Baltimore charter schools are essentially a small school district of 14,000 students running inside a larger school system of about 80,000 students. The “why can’t everyone just get along” approach won’t work. Nor will the “figure it out” approach. It has been contentious for much of the past 13 years. It will be contentious for the next 13 years unless things change. The relationship between charter schools and the district is complex and touches all aspects of the city itself. As a city, therefore, we need to come to agreement on this issue or the passing of time will make the decisions for us.

We need to get key players, key leaders, to come to the table for meaningful conversations about the future of the school system and the future of charters. In so many ways, these futures are one and the same. 

Tags: ABI , Afya Baltimore Inc. , afya public charter school , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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Doggone It, Live!

Posted Friday, March 03, 2017

This is Oliver.
This is Oliver.

My family and I have had a month. It’s all little stuff. But it adds up. It started with my dog Oliver. He weighs a hundred pounds. He’s beautiful. I love him very much. He’s not a very good boy. A couple weeks back he ate everything in sight. Didn’t matter what it was—two sticks of butter, some socks, my hat, the lilac tree, a pair of boots, cookies on the counter. He ate and he ate without prejudice.

It’s really hard to live in a house with a wife and three children and two dogs and three cats when one of the dogs eats absolutely everything in sight. I used to live in a row house. A while ago I moved to a single-family home, not far from one of my schools. It’s got a lot more square-footage than my old house. It also has Oliver. Oliver makes it smaller by half.

After eating everything, Oliver crashed into my wife’s leg. He was chasing the cat and caught her knee-cap instead. Minor mistake. No breaks, luckily. But she’s gimpy. So now I had a wife with a gimpy knee and a dog that eats everything.

And then my oldest child got sick. And she got sick a few days before her state swim meet. Not ideal. But when it’s time to compete, you have to compete. So we went to the meet. It was in Annapolis. And the first call I get from my gimpy-kneed wife is to say that my Oliver has crashed into the front window and smashed it right up. Oh my!

When this week began I was ready to start afresh. Got the window fixed. My oldest child recovered from being sick and had some good swims at the big meet. My wife’s knee was still not great but better than gimpy. I got right to it Monday morning. I drove to a meeting about future construction work at one of my schools. After that, I zipped across town to a meeting at another school about some interesting instructional work. There I was, idling at a red light, when—bang!—I got hit from behind. Then—bang again!—I hit the car in front of me. A four car mashup. Ouch. And it’s a new car I was driving no less.

My car got beat up pretty good. I got whiplashed. I’m still dizzy, truth be told. I’m probably slightly concussed as I write this. I’ll be alright.

It’s a lot though. Enough that I need to learn some lessons from this, lessons which, I think, directly tie to what’s going on in our school system right now. And so here they are—lessons learned from living with a crazy dog, a sick child, a gimpy-kneed wife, and a car crash:

Lesson One: Find perspective. Yes, my life has been slightly out of control lately but others face challenges, too—often bigger. A dear friend of mine, and a fellow school leader, has a little boy who will soon have his third open-heart surgery in 18 months. A bad dog? Not a problem!

Lesson Two: Go as slowly as possible and delay as long as you can. And once you’ve delayed as long as you can, delay a little longer, until you have all the information you need to make a reasonably sane decision. I have five animals in my house. I don’t exactly know how this happened. But I’m sure a lot of it is related to rash decision-making. Once my wife and kids went down to BARCS to get one cat and came back with two. That’s rash. Principals around the city are being asked to load up budgets in just a few weeks without knowing important information about revenue. The decisions they make could affect their respective schools for the next 16 months, maybe even much longer than that. My advice? Do as little as possible for as long as possible.

Lesson Three: Keep working. A week or so ago some teachers protested this budget crisis by not reporting to work. No teachers went to work! Not cool. Who knows what comes next? We might get $130 million back from the city and state. We might get $42 million. We might get in a car accident. We don’t know. But go to work we must. That’s what professionals do.

Lesson Four: Take care of others first. My car accident was relatively small but people looked out for one another. A police officer, driving the other direction, slowed to say he was reporting the situation and calling in for help. A witness stopped and left her information. The various drivers checked on one another to make sure everyone was ok.

In these challenging times, the best leaders will be the ones who are the most selfless. They will give everything they have, even though they’ve already given everything they had. The other day 50 principals went down to City Hall and gave of themselves. They spoke for their schools, their communities, their city. They were selfless. More of this, from still more people, is needed.

Lesson Five: Remember the little things, the ordinary things. This past Sunday, Oscar winner Viola Davis championed the great writer August Wilson, saying he “exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.” So should we all—ordinary people and ordinary things. The little boy I mentioned above, the one who has had two open-heart surgeries and will need another: he took his very first steps just this Tuesday. A teacher I know well keeps coming to school even though his newborn twins keep him up all night. He’s working. The kids at Tunbridge have started rehearsing for their annual musical. Can’t wait to see it.

In these ordinary things, and others like them, we should search for and find the artistic. We should celebrate, dog or no, what it means to live a life. We do these things and our schools will be better places.

Tags: ABI , Afya Baltimore Inc. , afya public charter school , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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Losing What We Love About Our Schools

Posted Friday, February 24, 2017

Afya PCS student Tayla, Class of 2011, doing what she loved back in 2009.
Afya PCS student Tayla, Class of 2011, doing what she loved back in 2009.

Baltimore’s public school system is in crisis. Again. In times of crisis people hunker down. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month—that’s all people can think about.

School-system leaders and politicians are scraping together plans to make it through to another day—or perhaps another school year. My own work, with my schools, is similar. Our network of three schools, which enroll 1,500 students, is facing budget gaps in excess of $1.5 million. Our school communities are confronting this monumental challenge now, trying to determine what’s important, what’s essential. There are no good decisions to be made. We are beset by something close to the worst case scenario. We’re trying to figure out how we can survive.

I’m engaged in all of this work. I live with it. I think about it all the time. I feel this pain. We’re in a crisis. The entire school system is in crisis. Only the now matters.

Around the city people are responding to the now. Thousands of people attended the Baltimore Education Coalition (BEC) rally in Annapolis Thursday night. Hundreds attended the Baltimoreans for Educational Equity (BEE) meeting on Wednesday night, and other groups are organizing advocacy events, as are individual schools. We are rallying around the now.

But there has to be more than the right now. The future comes on us whether or not we want it to.

Sonja Santelises said something the other day that is simply profound. We are, she warned, about to lose all the things about school that kids love. This got me thinking about the future. I wanted to understand this and wrestle with it. I just can’t accept it. We can’t accept this.

To keep what? That’s the question I keep coming back to. We’re about to lose all the things that kids love most about school, to keep what?

Answering that question should, I believe, lead us to the next generation, indeed the next quarter century, of planning and thinking about public education here in Baltimore City. In this blog I plan to write a lot about what this looks like—both for my own schools and for the broader school system.

For today, though, I keep coming back to this photograph  of an Afya student during our second year. Here she is, in her own little world, engaging in all the things that are great about school. She’s reading. She’s moving. She’s outside in the world. She’s living in her own little world.

Her name is Tayla. She is one single child in a moment and in a place. She is all the children of Baltimore. Repeat after me: We can’t lose all that we love about our schools. We can’t lose all that we love about our schools. We can’t lose all that we love about our schools. 

Tags: ABI , Afya Baltimore Inc. , afya public charter school , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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Part & Parcel

Posted Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Afya Public Charter School is in Belair-Edison, along with Brehms Lane Public Charter School. Tunbridge Public Charter School is in Govans.
Afya Public Charter School is in Belair-Edison, along with Brehms Lane Public Charter School. Tunbridge Public Charter School is in Govans.

As I introduced this blog in early February, my inspiration was the Friday Letter each of our school principals write every week to families. I intended to follow suit and write to the ABI school community weekly about local and national education issues. Two weeks into this, it’s clear writing only on Fridays isn’t enough. Because of this, we’re going to change the name of the ABI blog to Part & Parcel. Integral components of their communities, our schools – Afya, Brehms Lane and Tunbridge - are part and parcel of Baltimore City. I hope what I write here amplifies and celebrates the essence of the work and play in our schools, while providing an up close and personal look at education in Baltimore and beyond. On occasion, as with my last post, there may be a call to action. Always I hope I have the courage to draw attention to what I believe must change.

Tags: afya public charter school , brehms lane public charter school , tunbridge public charter school

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