Testimony on the Maryland Charter Schools Network

One of the first principles of the American constitutional system is that similarly situated people are treated similarly. It is seldom perfectly achieved, though we all strive to make it so.

And seldom, when it is not so, can the difference, the unfairness, be measured with as much precision as we can today measure the difference in funding between different kinds of public schools in the same Maryland school districts.

The unequal funding, as it relates to public charter schools, is understandable, given the ad hoc way in which public charter and other autonomous schools have sprouted in the last decade or so. All the same, it’s time to improve the poor funding fit between schools that occupy, for example, a public school system building, a building owned by a nonprofit organization and a building owned by a private landlord. And it’s time to improve the poor fit between the capital funding needs of public charter and other autonomous schools on the one hand and, on the other, older traditional approaches to funding public schools.

To that end, we at the Maryland Charter School Network ask that you incorporate the facilities funding proposals presented to you today, as well as those relating to school level autonomy.

But there is an inequality in public schools in Maryland today, an intriguing one, and not necessarily a bad one, that does not lend itself to the level of precision that the construction of a sticks and bricks school building allows.

It is a difference that is as hard to measure as measuring a facilities budget is easy. It’s the difference between schools consumed by a passion – a determined insistence –for each and every child bar none to succeed, and those schools which, for reasons not really within the control of teachers and staff, such as bureaucratic distractions, where that culture is not as focused.

I was recalling with Carl Stokes recently my involvement in a controversy earlier in the decade over the practice (which I supported) at Baltimore City College (a magnet high school in Baltimore City) of sending the bottom five percent of each ninth grade class back to their neighborhood high schools. Carl, who is the executive director of the Bluford Drew Jemison math and science middle school in the Oliver section of Baltimore, countered that he would never do that with his students. He said that if a child couldn’t keep up with the work at Bluford Drew Jemison, it was the school’s fault. He said that the school had the obligation to intervene to the full extent necessary to keep the child on track.

Could there be a more satisfying illustration of exceptional commitment and of high-value resource allocation than the ‘zero tolerance for failure’ culture at Bluford Drew Jemison? And could there be a more intriguing suggestion for why public charter schools in Maryland appear to be leading the way, if the most recently disclosed standardized test scores are any indication, in closing the minority achievement gap? Can there be a more exciting demonstration of the promise that every child in Maryland can at last expect — within our lifetimes, on our watch — to receive, and in fact receive, a quality education, his or her inalienable birthright?

Let me be clear. Public charter schools don’t have a monopoly on high performance teaching staff or on excellent academic outcomes. There are many paths to achieving the education goals that every thinking adult in the state believes in, and an uncountable number of talented, passionate teachers and administrators throughout the educational establishment who work tirelessly to make those goals a reality.

How, otherwise, could Maryland have achieved its number one in the nation educational ranking?

But that there are many paths is indeed the point: there is no one path; there are many, and the public charter path is one of the most energizing, exciting strategies percolating through the education system today. Let’s ditch our personal habits of mind from an older day, our preconceptions, and go with winners wherever they emerge.

The one important area of policy where Republicans and the Obama administration agree is public school teacher accountability and public school autonomy. Therefore, it’s teacher accountability and school autonomy to the visible political horizon and beyond, and the train is leaving the station for that place on a one-way, never to return journey. A few of the seats on that train come with a check for two hundred and fifty million dollars, and the rest come with a view of the back of the head of those who got the two hundred and fifty million.

Let’s play to win that Race to the Top money.

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