Chartering Schools in the City Must Change

Chartering Schools in the City Must Change

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.