The Mayor and Public Charter Schools

The Mayor and Public Charter Schools

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. 

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