One Maryland charter highlights half-broken promise of autonomy

Three years ago, a Fordham report on charter school autonomy highlighted several states that “tie the hands of charters with their overly restrictive statutes.” Maryland was in that Hall of Shame, and the recent action of one charter-sponsoring school district shows that the state has much to do before it can make it out.

Last month, the soon-to-be-opened Frederick Classical Charter School had prepared to offer jobs to nine teachers who met the school’s requirements to provide instruction in the “trivium” of classical education—grammar, logic, and rhetoric. But the Frederick County school district quashed those plans and told the charter that it had to hire at least six district teachers who needed placement because they were either returning from leave or were laid off from under-enrolled schools.

When Frederick Classical president Tom Neumark asked to interview these district employees, he discovered that school board policy prevented him from even learning their names. “It’s not that we don’t want [them],” Neumark told the Frederick News-Post. “It’s that we don’t know them. We want to talk to them and assess if they’re a good fit for the school.”

This trip down the rabbit hole was inevitable given the abysmal law that governs charter schooling in Maryland. It’s not just that Maryland charter schools cannot escape collective bargaining agreements; they also lack the legal protections that assure their autonomy from the districts that sponsor them. The Fordham report Charter School Autonomy: A Half-Broken Promise gave the state an F when it handed out grades for charter freedom. Likewise, Maryland has for years dwelled at or near the bottom of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’s ranking of state charter laws, mostly due to the absence of charter autonomy.

And Maryland is not alone. Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Mississippi all virtually undermine the ability of charter schools to govern themselves, and all have laws that make it easier for districts to bully charters. Wisconsin charters that are not authorized by school districts can hire their own teachers, but those sponsored by districts cannot. Charters in Kansas and Mississippi aren’t even considered separate from a school district.

Charters can’t succeed under these conditions—and neither can students. Neumark and the board of the Frederick Classical Charter School have a distinct mission and curriculum: classical education. And if they can’t hire the teachers suitable to their needs, then the enterprise breaks down, and a parental choice of a unique education becomes a false choice.

More importantly, these challenges violate the central promise made to charter schools twenty years ago: They would be held to account for results, but they would have the freedom to do things their way.

To secure this freedom, it’s not enough to exempt states such as Maryland from collective-bargaining agreements. They also need clear, statutory authority to operate independently from school districts. That should be an obvious conclusion for the charter sector, but autonomy remains, as my Fordham colleagues determined three years ago, a half-broken promise for too many states.

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