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The Tentacle


March 6, 2012

Busting Myths about County’s Charter Schools

Earl 'Rocky' Mackintosh

It has been only a little over a month since I last wrote about the plight of Frederick County’s straightjacketed charter school movement. However, I can’t let the Frederick County Board of Education’s recent rejection of Frederick Classical Charter School’s request for an eight-year charter go unremarked.

 

Frederick Classical was granted a four-year charter by the school board late last year. Against all odds, Frederick Classical found the proverbial needle in the haystack:  a centrally-located facility with a landlord willing to cut a deal that would work for the new school. The only modification requested by the charter school founders and the landlord was that the Board of Education agree to extend the charter term to eight years, the same length of the lease term.

 

On February 22, after public outcry insisting on a transparent voting process, the school board voted 4-3 in favor of rejecting the waiver request for a charter extension. Board members Jimmy Reeder, April Miller and Brad Young voted in favor of approving the waiver request. Angie Fish, Donna Crook, Katie Groth, and Jean Smith voted against it.

 

What a loss for Frederick County!

 

People, school choice is never a bad thing.

 

I’m seeing a lot of online comments posted to Frederick News Post articles that indicate we still have a long way to go in Frederick County to dispel some common local myths about charter schools. Let me tackle a few.

 

Myth #1: Frederick County Public Schools aren’t failing…therefore charters are not necessary here.

 

Charter schools are not just for failing inner-city school systems. They provide alternative learning environments for the host of children who cannot reach their full potential in a traditional public classroom. Every community is full of bright children who would improve dramatically with smaller class sizes, or a more hands-on experiential learning approach, or a more self-directed approach, or an enriched liberal arts curriculum…this list could go on and on.

 

There is no good reason not to provide low-to-no cost alternative learning environments for parents who cannot afford private schools. Charter schools cost less, not more, per pupil to operate. And more choice makes Frederick County a more attractive community for residents and employers.

 

If that doesn’t convince you, consider this:  charter schools in this country serve as incubators, or laboratories, for testing emerging research and the effectiveness of alternative teaching methods.

 

America’s great competitive advantage is, and has always been, its entrepreneurial culture. Americans are unparalleled at taking risks and finding unique ways to advance science, mathematics, medicine, literature, and technology. These inherent skills should be applied to continually improve how we educate our children, but innovation is not going to take place in a behemoth organization the size of the public school system.

 

Think of Frederick charter schools as the Pixar of Frederick County Public Schools. If we want our students to compete with those of emerging nations full of “tiger mothers,” who are making education a serious priority, we are going to have to do what Americans do best and innovate.

 

Myth #2: Charter schools will skim the cream of the crop from Frederick’s neighborhood schools.

 

This isn’t going to happen, for two reasons. First, with the exception of the children of a handful of parents who put in the arduous effort to found a public charter school, the selection of students are made completely by a lottery system.

 

In most cases around the country the number of applicants typically far exceeds the number of available seats by margins of 10-1 or more. Second, the vast majority of people prefer to leave their children in their conveniently located neighborhood schools with their friends and siblings. If this weren’t the case, every one of Frederick’s excellent private schools would all have waiting lists, and currently, none of them are full.

 

Myth #3: Approving an eight-year charter is too much of a risk to Frederick County Public Schools.

 

During the February 22 meeting, School Board President Angie Fish was quoted as saying: "I am not willing to take on that great a risk...I am not willing to go the eight years.”

 

Angie’s position on this doesn’t make any sense. Under the terms and conditions of the charter school contract, the Frederick County Public Schools and Board of Education have no financial or legal risk whatsoever. The school's charter can be revoked at any time with no consequence to the Board of Education.

 

The organizations assuming risk in this situation are the landlord, who is investing $1.4 million, and the charter school's governing board, which has the responsibility for paying back this investment. The only skin in the game for the school board is annual operating expenses, but again, they can revoke the charter at any time to avoid that cost.

 

Maryland provides no funding for charter school facilities. (For the record, Maryland’s charter school law is ranked a dismal seventh worst in the nation.)

 

Fortunately, great nonprofit organizations like Charter School Development Corporation (CSDC) provide facility development and financial services to charter schools.  However, even this organization’s lending programs require at least a minimum of five years or greater on a charter agreement in order to secure financing at a rate affordable to the typical charter school budget.

 

The financial realities of securing facilities demand a longer charter term to ensure that startup charter schools are not dedicating the majority of their operational budgets to rent or mortgages. The whole point, after all, is to educate children, and that is what those budgets should be dedicated to.

 

With all that stated, the founders of Frederick Classical Charter are determined not to give up on their dream to open in August of this year.

 

Despite the hurdles thrown in front of them by a majority of the Board of Education, I know that this dedicated band of educators will achieve their dream.

 

When it gets harder to open a new public charter school than to close a poorly performing public school, you know something has to change.

 

Rocky Mackintosh is the owner of a land and commercial real estate firm based in Frederick. He is also the editor of the MacRo Report Blog.

 

rocky@macroltd.com

 



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