Charter schools have always been contentious and still confuse many people. I believe Howard County School Board candidates should be clear about their understanding of charter schools and state their positions. I’m happy to start.
Let me state this as firmly as I can: I strongly favor using our funds and talented staff to continue improving our HCPSS schools. I am not in support of privately-owned charter schools being part of our public-school mix.
Before we continue, let’s acknowledge that the idea of a “private public school” is a bit baffling. We need to clarify some basic facts:
- Charter schools are public schools, financed by taxpayer dollars approved by the local Board of Education, just like our HCPSS schools. They are NOT private schools.
- Charter schools are managed by private companies; they are not part of the school system, where the community is represented by the elected Board.
- However, Charter Schools must obtain the permission of the local board in order to operate. Boards can use this authority to negotiate funding, some accountability parameters and charter renewal terms.
Charter Schools tried to have this requirement overturned in the legislature last year, but failed. That’s a red flag. Further, there are serious weaknesses in the law regarding charter schools’ transparency and accountability requirements.
- There are currently no Charter Schools in Howard County
Charter schools have other important characteristics that make them different from HCPSS schools.
- Any student can apply to enroll in the charter school of their choice. Besides the boundaries of the district itself, there are no attendance areas, as there are with HCPSS schools.
- Charter schools must meet fewer requirements compared to HCPSS schools in areas such as curriculum, testing and teacher certification.
- Charter Schools have no obligation to admit every student interested in attending. HCPSS schools, on the other hand, must educate any student living within the District’s boundaries.
- This ability to pick and choose means charter schools may exclude underperforming, problematic or any other students by simply choosing not to admit them. HCPSS schools embrace all students and accommodate all challenges and obstacles in a spirit of compassion and inclusion.
Although advocates can make a case that charter schools with an intense subject-area focus, such as STEM, offer a new and possibly better opportunity for some students, there is evidence that we have to remain on guard about charter schools in Howard County.
For example, the NAACP has called for stronger limits on charter school expansion, asserting that charter schools funnel resources away from African American students in the public schools.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Maryland law provides no strong requirements for charter schools to report on how their public funds are spent, and does not require criminal background history and fingerprinting requirements that are similar to non-charter schools.
Add to this legal weakness the less stringent testing and certification requirements, and there is no clear way for a school board to assess the performance of the charter schools they may authorize. While some schools may be successful, a board has no way of knowing without a requirement for full transparency and accountability.
When charter schools were adopted in Maryland in 2003, public funding was provided on the understanding that the schools would serve as models to help our school systems improve. We have lost this original vision, and charter schools now operate as a competitor to the public schools. They fight for a slice of the public school system budget and, in terms of charter renewal and accountability and management resources.
There are lessons we can learn from the charter school model in terms of providing students with highly-focused curricula that develop their interests and aptitudes. But to authorize and fund charter schools in Howard County is to take our eyes off the prize of building a world-class Howard County Public School System – and risk spreading valuable funds and other resources so thinly that everyone loses. It’s not a good idea for our budget, our managers and especially, our students.
That’s my stand. I welcome your thoughts and comments.