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Jeanne Allen: Wake up, Maryland isn't No. 1 in education

November 13, 2011|By JEANNE ALLEN

Maryland leadership boasts the state’s education system is No. 1, a subjective assessment made by a news magazine, based on factors entirely unrelated to student outcomes, such as money spent and teacher education. The Nation’s Report Card this month revealed that average proficiency is only 50 percent in math and reading — hardly an achievement. Even the federal government knows Maryland isn’t No. 1. Last month, the state’s application for charter school funding was rejected because its law is not strong enough.

Federal funds are competitively awarded to states to approve quality charters. Maryland has the seventh weakest charter school law in the U.S., earning it a grade of D. That’s because an applicant must get approval from school districts, which, for years have denied the need for more options and opposed their creation. In most counties, only the heartiest return. Those few approved then become subject to the same bureaucratic requirements that other, strong charter laws waive, and which applicants want to replace with performance requirements.

Take the recently approved Community Montessori Charter School, whose founder, Crossway Community Inc., has a 20-year history in Montgomery County serving needy families who get left behind in even this wealthy county. The school board first rejected the application, questioning a state-of-the-art facilities plan and usefulness of the world-renowned Montessori concept. Founders fought back, and were approved, only after the State Board of Education essentially mandated it. The school still faces challenges, but Community Charter will open in September 2012, yet without needed federal funds to make up the deficiencies, which the district will not cover.

Frederick Classical, which after three years of denials was finally approved to open a school, will ensure all students earn an education rich in classical, world literature and history. This charter — like its counterparts in Baltimore — will receive fewer than 70 cents on the dollar for each student it enrolls and thus federal start-up funds were deemed critical for its success.

The charter schooling idea was designed to free educators and parents from traditional structures that do not work for all children. By limiting authorization to school districts, which already have challenges meeting proficiency goals in education for everyone, charter applicants are always on hostile footing. Most states not only provide for alternative authorizers, but ensure operational and financial freedoms (including hiring and firing) in exchange for performance guarantees. Maryland’s law limits school autonomy to make decisions regarding hiring, budgets or curriculum, all items that actually ensure a successful charter school.

Yes, even in wealthy counties like Montgomery and Howard, where as many as 35 percent of students are not proficient, having choices is important to parents.  

President Obama recognizes that high-quality charter schools can only be created in states with a strong charter law that ensures equity for all, allows for multiple avenues of approval other than school boards, and gives charters the freedoms to operate.

As long as Maryland lawmakers think they are No. 1, they’ll ignore the necessity of improving opportunities for the state’s most precious resource. Thus, not only will less advantaged families continue to have few quality options, but funding will continue to elude us.

Maryland being No. 1 is only a dream. It’s time to wake Annapolis out of its false complacency and, for starters, fix the charter school law. Students in states that have a strong portfolio of reforms succeed and accelerate.  

Jeanne Allen is president of The Center for Education Reform, which, since 1993, has been an advocate for substantive and structural change in American education.

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