- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

BaltimoreCity’s perennially problematic public-school system is once again crying poverty, this time over required funding of the new charter schools scheduled to open this fall in Baltimore. On May 6, the Maryland State Board of Education ruled that students in charter schools must have a per-pupil funding amount equal to what other local public-school children receive. Therefore, if a student leaves the traditional public schools and starts attending a charter school in Baltimore, nearly $11,000 will accompany him or her to the new public charter school.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland faces this headache after several months of budgetary woes. Besides the recurring budget deficit, a state audit last year found that perhaps $18 million in federal Title I funds were misspent by the district between 2001 and 2004.

How is BCPS reacting to this recent State Board ruling? By suing the state. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Baltimore would rather file a lawsuit than bend to the will of the legislature. Ms. Copeland told the Baltimore Sun that the ruling “will ultimately hurt all students in Baltimore City” and has pledged to do whatever she can to fight the ruling in court.

Such a claim is dubious. After all, Baltimore has the 12th highest spending per pupil among the largest 100 school districts in the nation, according to one report from the U.S. Department of Education. The city spends more per student than many larger districts like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston and Chicago — where charter schools operate alongside traditional public schools.

The lawsuit is unlikely to succeed. As the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-charter school group, recently noted, “Time and time again, state supreme courts and lower courts have upheld the constitutionality of charter schools, striking down 11 such challenges since 1998.” The lawsuit and quotes from school officials meant to frighten the general public only conceal the real issue: Children who attend public school must enroll in a mandated district. Barring expensive private schools, parents have little choice in the education their children receive. School districts like this arrangement: It assures that a steady stream of children populate their schools and requires little accountability.

Charter schools change that situation. Choice is in the hands of parents. Parents who are unhappy with a school can transfer their children to another charter school or back to the traditional public schools. In short, the individual charter school is accountable to the parents.

Test scores in Baltimore schools are among the lowest in the state. Statistics describing this sad state of affairs are legion: Fewer than 45 percent of eighth graders in Baltimore City read at a proficient level and only 19 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math, according to the latest 2004 MSA test results. The state’sWebsite (www.mdk12.org) details many more of these regrettable figures. Children in Baltimore City can only gain from charter schools.

This is yet another example of how the school system will fight to the bitter end to resist the benefits that charter schools bring to parents and their children. While Maryland’s charter-school law has a number of flaws, the state board now requires funding parity — the most noteworthy feature of the law. Too often, charter schools around the nation lack money, with many receiving only 75 or 80 percent of the operational per-pupil funding of other area public schools. (And this ignores the fact that most charter schools do not get capital funding for their buildings.) Funding parity will allow the first group of charter schools in Baltimore City to educate children.

Research from Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby indicates that charter schools can help their own students achieve more and also benefit students left in the traditional public schools.

The “competition” effect should not be that surprising. Over the course of American history, competition improved all manner of goods and services, so why not academics as well? The opening of charter schools in Baltimore could be just what the school district needs to improve operations and refocus on student achievement.

Spending time and money this way would certainly be better than wasting it on scare tactics and legal maneuvering. At the same time, charter schools will bring much-needed educational choices to the city’s children. Large school districts across the nation have seen charter schools open and help students escape underperforming schools.

Kirk A. Johnson is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis and an adjunct fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

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