Dr. Gregory E. Thornton

The new school year is off to a strong start in Baltimore City. New Career and Technology Education pathways have been added at more than a dozen middle and high schools, a new athletics program is gearing up at middle schools, and more elementary students are getting opportunities to learn through the arts.

Also this year, we’ve welcomed four new charter schools to the district—three opening for the first time, and a fourth that has converted from a traditional school to charter operation. That brings the number of Baltimore charter schools to 34, nearly three-quarters of all the charter schools in the state and three times more than in any other district. More than 13,000 of our 85,000 students now attend charter schools. They are an important part of City Schools, bringing innovation, creative programming, and expanded school options for Baltimore’s families.

Those options also include 152 other schools and programs: neighborhood elementary schools, middle and high schools with distinct areas of academic focus, and schools and programs where students facing specific challenges or with significant disabilities receive the specialized programs and support we are legally and morally obliged to provide to ensure their success.

City Schools must allocate its resources equitably and in accordance with state and federal law to meet the needs of all students, whether they attend charter or non-charter schools. Particularly in these days of state funding cuts when all schools could use more, we are challenged to ensure that budget allocations are made in such a way that no school benefits at the expense of another.

City Schools has been working with charter operators to refine an approach to ensure commensurate funding for charter schools, one that provides budgetary autonomy and cash resources to enable flexibility for innovation. With our charter school partners, community stakeholders, and representatives from traditional schools, we have analyzed revenue sources and expenses, calculated costs of administrative services and identified those we agree should be delivered centrally, and explored a range of funding methodologies.

On September 8, district staff presented one possible approach to the Board of School Commissioners. This approach would distribute dollars to charter schools based on the number of students they serve, linking those dollars to the purposes for which they are provided to the district. This includes funds received from the state to provide compensatory education for students from low-income households and to deliver instruction for those identified as English language learners. The funding formula would establish a base per-pupil amount for all students and add amounts for students in low-income and English-learner categories. Initially, funds for students requiring special education services would continue to be administered centrally to ensure that legal and educational obligations are met across the spectrum of student need. As charter schools express desire to operate programs to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities, dollars for special education could also flow directly to them.

The proposed approach answers charter school operators’ request for a revenue-driven model and provides them with more autonomy over potentially increased cash resources; it also defines a model sustainable for the entire district, ensuring equity for all of our students. While the proposed formula it includes would change funding for some of the district’s 34 charter schools in amounts (positive or negative) sufficient to affect programming, district staff proposed that, if pursued, the approach would be implemented through a transition plan to mitigate its effects.

On September 10, City Schools was informed that eight charter schools had filed legal action over the issue of funding. (A ninth school, Brehms Lane Elementary, is a traditional neighborhood school that will convert to charter operation next year.) While we are disappointed that these schools have chosen this course, we remain committed to continuing collaboration and discussion with our partners and stakeholders to define a charter school funding formula that will promote equity and ensure commensurate funding for students in charter and non-charter schools alike. Getting this right is important not only as we head into development of the 2016-17 budget, but for the future growth and success of all of Baltimore’s students and schools.

The Board of School Commissioners will hold a public forum on the issue of charter school funding on Saturday, September 26, beginning at 9:00 a.m. at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School (3500 Hillen Road). I strongly encourage all members of the public to attend to learn more about the proposed approach and to share your ideas about equitable funding for our schools. Your feedback is also welcome by email to publicforums@bcps.k12.md.us.

Dr. Gregory E. Thornton is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.