Emily: Why Strong Charter-School Legislation Is a Must

Marjorie lives in Montgomery County, having moved there a number of years ago in part because the reputation of the county’s school system. Marjorie’s daughter, Emily, is what is known as a “GT/LD” student in bureaucratese. That is to say that she is a gifted and talented student, but also learning disabled.

The public schools are required by law to devise education plans for learning-disabled students. Marjorie was not satisfied with what the Montgomery County public schools (MCPS) proposed when Emily was still in elementary school. At wit’s end, she pulled her daughter out of public school and began a portfolio-based, home-schooling program.1 Removing Emily from the public school system was one of the deepest sorrows of her life, she says. She had hoped to watch her daughter flourish in the diverse and friendly environment of the public schools, as she had done.2 But the school system would not accommodate.

Marjorie and Emily are pseudonyms. They wish to remain unnamed to prevent MCPS from curtailing or ending Emily’s current, limited public-school participation. It is in the best interest of the child.

Emily’s neurological impairment, while unusual, is neither unique nor questioned in medical circles. It contributes to a learning disability, affects her physical health and makes her ill-suited to fulfil the demands of regular public schooling. (The Calvert Institute has documented evidence of the impairment. However, as the condition is not common, further detail would jeopardize Emily’s anonymity.) While still in public elementary school (prior to starting home schooling), Emily’s school’s academic program did not match her needs. In fact, it aggravated her illness. In addition, Marjorie received inconsistent district evaluations and recommendations that confused and frustrated her – and challenged the supposition that she (Marjorie) was acting in Emily’s best interest.

As a home-school student, however, Emily flourished academically for a few years, but she missed the social development offered by the school experience. Because she was unable to attend MCPS as a regular student, doctors recommended that she attend two or three freshman high-school classes to meet her socialization needs. The public schools were, again, uncooperative to parent and child. The county’s legal services contested the request at every turn.

As the parent’s home-schooling program included a religious element, the MCPS construed its service-provision obligations as being limited to the extent defined within the “Agreement between Montgomery County Public Schools and Private/Parochial Schools.” This 1996 memorandum of understanding defines the limitations of the MCPS’s obligations to provide services to students of private or parochial schools.3 Under the terms of the MOU, the MCPS claimed it was not required to provide 15 hours of “participation in regular public school education.” This was what had been recommended by Emily’s doctors, who were all but ignored by MCPS. If MCPS could define the child’s home-schooling regimen as “parochial-school education,” it was not, it claimed, required to permit the 15 hours of participation, as this was not covered within the MOU. MCPS insisted that Marjorie’s request fell outside the defined parameters. Marjorie’s legal advisors did not agree.

Among the many hoops Emily was forced to jump through was MCPS’s contention that she could not enroll in high school unless she, Emily, had her own attorney. Her mother’s attorney would not suffice. (Yet, Emily could have enrolled in Montgomery County Community College without an attorney.) Marjorie turned to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU agreed that MCPS was discriminating against the mother’s religious beliefs. According to Marjorie, a 14-month war of wills ensued, with the MCPS staking out an all-or-nothing position: Either the child must be enrolled on a regular, for-credit basis or stay away altogether. The MCPS declined to recognize Emily’s condition as valid evidence of learning disability, despite written testimony from the no less a source than the National Institutes of Health. Finally, facing legal action, MCPS enrolled Emily in a limited, special-education program. Emily’s classification, however, remains in dispute and the district continues its unaccommodating and system-centered approach.

Marjorie finally got her way, but only at great emotional expense to mother and child alike. Marjorie and Emily endured treatment from MCPS that neither respected her as a parent nor placed the child’s best interest above district regulation. This is the price Maryland pays for monopoly public education.

Choice in Maryland
School choice is a perennial item of discussion in Maryland. However, this is largely a one-party state. In excess of 90 percent of the main teachers’ union’s political contributions go to candidates of the ruling party, the Democrats.4 So there is rarely any serious legislative action for parental choice.

But charter schools, on the other hand, have received significant attention this legislative session.

In February, Delegate Matthew Mossburg (R-Montgomery County) introduced charter-school legislation, H.B. 999,5 very loosely based on Arizona’s.6 A month later the bill was set aside by a subcommittee to be studied this summer and resubmitted next year. Although the bill did not pass, it did inspire energetic rhetoric about public-school choice and innovation. But here is the catch: It takes a strong charter-school law to spark innovation and to realize true parental choice. Nothing else will suffice.

Weak Legislation
Even supporters conceded that the likelihood of passing a strong charter-school law this year was slender. Weak legislation was another matter, however. Recent federal legislation providing $80 million to support the implementation and start-up costs for charter schools inspired legislators around the country to create emasculated bills for the sake of obtaining federal money. According to the office of Delegate John R. Leopold (R-Anne Arundel), H.B. 999 was set aside to make sure it meets federal funding requirements.7 The text of the original bill itself makes this quest for federal funds explicit.8 It is hard to escape the conclusion that H.B. 999 was a weak bill designed primarily to obtain federal money and only secondarily to improve the public school system.

The bill would have limited choice, for example, by making it extraordinarily difficult for any organization but an existing public school to acquire charter status. Private schools would not have been able to convert to charter schools. The county school board would have been the only chartering authority and there was no appeals process. For public-school conversions, teachers would have remained tied to the unions. For newly chartered organizations, there was no specified requirement for the school’s board of trustees to enter contract with the union; however, contract or not, these schools would not have been permitted to deviate from the pay scales already established by the public-school unions in the relevant school district. Waivers from district regulations might have been sought and obtained, though the district would not have been obligated to comply.

Delegate Mossburg, however, contends that a start must be made somewhere. “Nobody else is supporting charters,” he says. “It’s an uphill battle, but I hope to gain support in an ebbing election year.”9 An uphill battle it is indeed. This is a pity because more people need to know the opportunities that charter schools present.

Charter Schools
True charter schools provide choice, child-centered education and school accountability – putting the needs of the child and the parents before the system. They must. If they do not, they lose students; if they lose students, they lose money. Charters serve needs that traditional public schools do not meet, thus benefiting parents, schools, community and, most important, children. Charters place child and family first.

Charter schools are publicly funded, independent schools contracted (“chartered”) by the local school governing body to educate a given number of students to previously agreed upon standards. The schools are paid according to the number of students they attract. This gives them a built-in incentive to devise good programs, for their very livelihood depends on it. They are free of bureaucratic and regulatory micromanagement from the school district headquarters. This in turn allows them to design and deliver programs tailored to educational excellence and community needs. They operate on three basic principals.
Accountability: Charter schools are held accountable for how well they actually educate children, not how well they comply with district regulations.
Choice: Parents, teachers, community groups, organizations or individuals interested in creating better education opportunities for children can start charter schools. This is a recipe for innovation.
Autonomy: Correctly structured charter schools are relatively unhindered by the traditional bureaucracy and regulations that divert public schools’ energy and resources toward compliance rather than excellence.

Charter schools provide a variety of services to children, placing healthy pressure on the local district to provide equal or better services. For example, 5,000 students attend 20 charter schools within the boundaries of the Mesa School District, one of the better districts in Arizona. In response, the school district purchased an ad in the local paper touting its services and academic accomplishments. It may purchase bus advertisements and billboards next year in an effort to keep pace with charter-school innovation. As the focus continues to shift from the needs of the system to the needs of children and parents, the children of Arizona are better served. “It’s public education in the finest sense of the word: It serves the public, not the bureaucracy,” says Lisa Graham Keegan, the elected state superintendent of education.10

CBS’s Sixty Minutes show ran a story on Yvonne Chan, the energetic principal of a San Fernando Valley’s Vaughn Next Century Charter School in next-door California. The local school district, one of the largest and most bureaucratic in the nation, typically took a year to buy computers for its classrooms. Chan thought that was ridiculous. It took her charter school six days to purchase computers – and for less money. As a result, the Los Angeles Unified School District revised its purchasing system.11 In 1997, Vaughn got the 1997 National Blue Ribbon Award.

Fenton Avenue Charter School in Los Angeles, whose enrollment is 97 percent minority and nearly all poor, boosted pupil test scores more than 20 percent in two years. In May of 1997 Fenton was named a California Distinguished School.

In the struggle to provide school choice to Detroit parents, the Detroit Public Schools Superintendent David Snead said, “We’re finding the charter idea is helping encourage other schools in our district to examine what they are doing. I don’t agree with those who are defensive. We are proud of many things about the Detroit schools. But we can, and must, do better. Charter schools are helping us move in the right direction.”12

Boston’s City on a Hill Charter School has done so well that the local public school district will ride its coattails in 1998. The charter school received a two-year $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to launch a mathematics collaboration with the Boston public schools (BPS). BPS Superintendent Thomas Payazant endorses the collaboration with City on a Hill.13

At Risk, Doing Well
In addition to developing and leading districts toward academic innovation, charters also serve a market niche that traditional public school districts do not adequately serve – learning-impaired students such as Emily.

In many cases, the impetus for starting charter schools comes from a desire better to serve those falling through the district cracks. Over the last 20 years there has been a drastic increase in students being classified as having attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or emotional behavior disorder (EBD). Once classified as having one of these conditions, many of these students never get beyond the low expectations of special-education or remedial courses.

Charter schools often work to reduce their special-education rolls, not by excluding such students, but by working intensively with them in a regular classroom setting. Charters take all students, but resist the ever-growing practice of labeling difficult or low-achieving children as “special ed” simply to get them out of the regular classroom or to pick up additional special-ed funds. As a result, charter schools may appear to serve fewer special-education students than traditional public school, inviting the charge that they are exclusionary. This is not the case.

In a 1996 study, Charter Schools in Action: What Have We Learned?, the Hudson Institute found that a significant number of families with disabled youngsters are displeased with special education as practiced by public schools. “For various reasons (and they truly vary), that approach was not working for their sons and daughters. Hence they, too, want something different, and for hundreds of them charter schools offer an attractive alternative.”14

In line with such sentiments, an Education Commission of the States study found that more than half of all charter schools (51 percent) were created to serve at-risk youngsters.15

The Hudson Institute’s 1997 follow-up study, Charter Schools in Action: Final Report, found that charter schools are enrolling a sizable population of disabled youngsters – and the student’s parents believe they are well served.16 This is amply illustrated in table 1 and table 2.

The sheer variety of charter schools for special populations is notable. Take, for example, the Metro Deaf school in St. Paul, Minnesota or the APPLE School in Lakeland, Florida (the latter with an enrollment 85 percent ADD/ADHD, 16 percent of whom also have additional disabilities). Schools such as these actively reach out to the special-education student population.

The Success School in Yuma, Arizona is a multi-site charter school for troubled youth, many of whom are on parole and probation from the state juvenile correction system.

The Charter School of San Diego is another multi-site school. Covering 253 square miles, it spans the equivalent of grades 6-12.

Lowell Middlesex Academy in Massachusetts is sponsored by a community college and enrolls 100 high-school dropouts, nearly all of them long removed from traditional district schools.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the New Visions Charter School employs innovative stimulation strategies designed to enhance students’ learning, despite low-income background or disabilities.

Far from serving just the “cream of the crop,” the country club contingent, many charter schools are aggressively reaching out to at-risk youth. And thriving on it.

Opportunity for Maryland
Delegate Mossburg’s efforts did not result in charter schools this year, but his efforts are critical to the many families whose children are not well served by the present public education system. Marjorie’s and Emily’s troubles stem from administrative procedures that put the system before the child. Every year that passes without true school choice denies Marjorie, Emily and other Maryland parents the opportunity for better education. Shame on Maryland.

Mr. DeSchryver is a policy analyst at the Center for Education Reform. He is the co-editor of the Charter School Workbook: Your Roadmap to the Charter School Movement, from which some of the article is derived.

End Notes
[Back] 1. A home-school portfolio presents a representative sampling of the student’s academic achievement and experiences in the courses studied. It provides a means to measure the student’s progress necessary for placement, assessment or credit.

[Back] 2. “Marjorie,” letter to the author, dated August 21, 1997.

[Back] 3. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), “Agreement between Montgomery County Public Schools and Private/Parochial Schools,” unpublished document signed by representatives of the MCPS and an unidentified person “on behalf of private and parochial providers.” The agreement is dated Feb. 28, 1996.

[Back] 4. The main teachers’ union in Maryland is the Maryland State Teachers’ Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. For details, see Douglas P. Munro, John E. Berthoud and Carol L. Hirschburg, “Choice, Polls and the American Way,” Calvert News, Vol. II, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 8-9, 17-19, at 17-18.

[Back] 5. The purpose of the bill, in its own words, is for “establishing a public charter school program; providing requirements and criteria for the establishment of a public charter school; specifying the procedure under which a county board of education may grant a charter for the creation of a public charter school; providing for the creation, operation, governance, and personnel policies of a public charter school; providing for certain admissions guidelines for public charter schools; etc. See bill synopsis, located at State of Maryland, Maryland’s Electronic Capital, “House Bill 999,” Internet site (http://mlis.state.md.us/1998rs/billfile/hb0999.htm), downloaded March 1, 1998.

[Back] 6. For a description of Arizona’s 1994 charter-school legislation, see Angela Dale and David A. DeSchryver (eds.), The Charter School Workbook: Your Roadmap to the Charter School Movement (Washington, D.C.: Center for Education Reform, 1997), pp. 26-27.

[Back] 7. [Name withheld], telephone conversation with the editor, March 11, 1998.

[Back] 8. The first line reads, “Whereas, the federal government has appropriated $80 million in Fiscal Year 1998 to support the implementation and start-up costs for approved charter schools….”

[Back] 9. Delegate Matthew Mossburg, telephone conversation with the author on January 15, 1998.

[Back] 10. [No author given], “Schools Discover Consumers,” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1997, p. 18.

[Back] 11. Gregg Vanourek, Bruno V. Manno, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Louann A. Bierlein, “The Educational Impact of Charter Schools,” Hudson Institute Charter Schools in Action: Final Report, Part V, July 1997, p. 9.

[Back] 12. Joe Nathan, Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), p. 89.

[Back] 13. Beth Daley, “$400,000 Grant Seeks Boost for Calculus,” Boston Globe, October 2, 1997, Internet edition (http://www.boston.com).

[Back] 14. Chester E. Finn, Jr., Bruno Manno and Louann Bierlein, “Dilemmas Faced by Policymakers,” Hudson Institute Charter Schools in Action: What Have We Learned?, Section 4, 1996, Internet site (http://www.a1.com/hudson/charters/dilemmas.html), downloaded March 1, 1998.

[Back] 15. Education Commission of the States and the Center for School Change (ECS/CSC), A Survey of Approved Charter Schools (Denver, Colo.: ECS/CSC, July 1995), passim.

[Back] 16. Gregg Vanourek, Bruno V. Manno, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Louann A. Bierlein, “Charter Schools as Seen by Those Who Know Them Best: Students, Teachers and Parents,” Hudson Institute Charter Schools in Action: Final Report, Part I, July 1997, p. 5.

Posted in: Education, News Series