Maryland Has Long Waiting List for Charter Schools

Published November 3, 2009

Demand is high but supply is low for Maryland students wanting to attend a charter school. The state has 42, but almost all of them are in Baltimore—leaving 3,000 students statewide on waiting lists.

School choice advocates say the state’s current law and political climate are the reasons seats aren’t available for these students.

“It’s a good and bad sign that so many students remain on waiting lists,” said Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute. “It shows that Maryland parents want another option besides their traditional public schools. While not all public schools are failing in the state, there are, unfortunately, too many students who are required to go to schools that fall below academic standards, because they have no other choice. This is especially true for minority groups and those in the poorest neighborhoods.

“It also shows that parents have thrown in the towel on the promised reforms of their current schools, and the idea that if you just throw more money at a public school it will get better,” he added.

Kara Kerwin, director of external affairs for the Bethesda-based school choice advocacy group Center for Education Reform (CER), agrees.

“The charter school movement has only recently taken off in Maryland,” she said. “Some of the successes Baltimore charter schools have seen have increased public awareness of the opportunities these schools can afford students.”

Law Among Nation’s Worst

According to a CER study published earlier this year ranking 40 state charter school laws, Maryland ranked tenth-weakest and received a D grade “because it is not in sync with parental demand for these innovative schools across the state,” Kerwin said.

“The Maryland General Assembly needs to look to states with strong multiple authorizers and greater operational autonomy for charters in order to improve its law rank in the future,” she added.

However, some of the nation’s best charter schools can be found in Maryland. One national success story, Summers said, “is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) in Baltimore, which has a national record of high academic achievement, despite its location in one of the roughest areas of town.

Union Demands Impede Innovation

But state law is impeding the school’s progress, Summers says.

“The charter school law requires teachers in the charter schools to belong to the teachers union,” Summers noted. “Part of that union’s agreement is that teachers only work seven hours a day, and anything above that is overtime. Part of the reason for KIPP’s success is that their teachers work nine hours and fifteen minutes a day, often after school and on weekends. KIPP has warned that they will have to get rid of some teachers if they are forced to pay them the 33 percent more than the teachers union is demanding.

“The sad thing is, this school is the saving grace for some of those kids, and the teachers know it,” Summers continued. “They seem to be glad to dedicate the extra time to benefit these kids. But the union would rather keep things as they are than let kids have a better opportunity. Currently they are trying to reach a compromise on the issue.

“What has happened with KIPP goes to the heart of the issue,” he concluded. “If teachers are held subject to the local teachers union in their district, the program’s success will be squashed.”

Laws and Politics

For charter schools to thrive in Maryland, Kerwin said, policies will have to change—including the number and type of charter school authorizers allowed.

“The main problem is the vague law which keeps power and centralizes the oversight power with the Maryland county school boards,” she said. “These school boards do not want competition from charter schools. They are the only authorizers, except in Baltimore. Suppose you wanted to open a Burger King on the same block where there was a McDonald’s, and in order to get approval for your Burger King you had to ask McDonald’s for permission.”

Though many have called for changes in Maryland’s law, the teachers union remains an obstacle.

“Maryland has one of the strongest teachers unions in the country, and they have a strong influence on the legislature,” Summers said. “Couple that with the fact that one political party has a supermajority hold in the state legislature, and it’s very unlikely that we will see a positive change in the charter school law anytime soon.”

What’s needed is “more public attention to the issue and the problem with the law,” Summers said.

“Parents and communities must be made aware that the teachers union is stopping their students from having greater choices in their education. Maryland must look at other states and see the advancements they’ve made when the power of the unions is not allowed to prevail.”

Kerwin agrees.

“The bottom line is this: Collective bargaining prevents schools from innovating and providing a better education for these kids,” she said. “There has to be a realization that this is not a partisan issue, that it is really about what is best for the kids. When that happens, Maryland will see more school choice.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.