February 6, 2002 | Testimony on Parental Choice in Education

Maryland Needs a Strong Public Charter School Law

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on the merits of Senate Bill 401 and how a strong public charter school law will benefit Maryland children. I must stress that the views I express are entirely my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.

Maryland's children deserve access to schools of excellence. Yet, not all of Maryland's children attend a quality school. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, almost three quarters of Maryland's fourth and eighth graders were not proficient on the most recent math, science, and reading tests. The news is even bleaker for low-income children, over half of whom cannot read or perform mathematics at even a basic level.

On the 2001 Maryland State Performance Assessment Program, test scores dropped for most of the school districts. Over all 43.7 percent of elementary and middle school students scored at or above the satisfactory level a drop from the 45.3 percent the previous year.

The adoption of a public charter school law will give children underserved by the current system access to schools that will be held accountable for their achievement. A public charter school, by definition, must agree to meet certain performance standards to fulfill its charter. In exchange for accountability requirements, the school receives exemptions from public school regulations (other than those governing health, safety, and civil rights). This gives public charter schools the autonomy and flexibility to achieve those results.

Public charter schools often institute a more rigorous curriculum, longer school years, and greater teacher autonomy. Generally smaller than traditional schools, they offer an intimate and unique learning environment, structured to the individual needs of the students. Public charter schools involve high levels of parental involvement. They often institute a more rigorous curriculum, longer school day and longer school year, and greater teacher autonomy and flexibility.

Currently, there are 38 public charter school laws in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Since the early 1990s, researchers have studied the impact of charter schools on student achievement. The most recent study by the RAND Corporation confirmed what other studies have shown about choice programs, specifically that they serve populations similar to traditional schools and produce positive or neutral achievement gains. In public charter schools, parents are more satisfied and academic achievement continues to grow after the first year.

Other studies have focused on the benefits to students who remain in nearby traditional schools. Public charter schools cause a "ripple effect" of improvement in surrounding schools. The higher the number of charter schools, the greater the ripple effect. Additionally, competition has the greatest impact where charter school laws permit the greatest autonomy.

The Center for Education Reform, which has monitored public charter school laws since 1993, has established standards for strong public charter school laws. A strong charter school law will ensure that public charter schools are successful and plentiful. A strong charter school law should:

· Provide legal and operational autonomy,
· Guarantee full funding and fiscal autonomy,
· Set high or no limits on the number of schools that may be formed,
· Permit new schools to start up as well as allowing public school conversions, and
· Exempt charters from collective bargaining agreements and district work rules.

Senate Bill 401 meets some of these criteria. It could, however, be strengthened. Specifically, public charter schools should be given full autonomy. Under SB 401, the district and state retain the authority to grant waivers. Public charter schools are also constrained by the requirement to hire only certified teachers. Public charter schools should have the freedom to hire quality professionals from other backgrounds who want to teach. They should be able to hire scientists, businesswomen, and mathematicians, as well as teachers from prestigious private schools and other experts. These individuals can bring high levels of expertise to the classroom. The accountability terms of their charter will guarantee that they make wise choices. Senate Bill 401 also contains unnecessary rules regarding discipline and school facilities. These issues, however, can be worked out during committee consideration.

Maryland's children deserve a strong public charter school law. They deserve access to schools of excellence. Poor children and those struggling academically stand the most to gain. The recent drop in MSPAP scores highlights the need for reform. The Maryland Senate can take the first steps to rebuilding Maryland's schools by enacting a strong public charter school law.

Krista Kafer Senior Policy Analyst for Education, The Heritage Foundation

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About the Author

Krista Kafer Senior Education Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies