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December 1, 2009

For Better or Worse?

Farrell Keough

We’ve all seen and heard the current brouhaha’s within the Board of Education, but have we been able to follow the alternatives presented to this group for better educational choice and potential savings?


Two groups have recently given our school board the opportunity to make this choice: Frederick Education Reform* and another group basing their model on the proven track record of the Monocacy Valley Montessori public school. Both of these groups have worked diligently to develop a curriculum that meets the standards and desires of the public and, as history has shown, both will receive more applications than they will be able to handle.


As readers will note, I have pushed for School Vouchers, but one has to recognize in a state such as Maryland, the likelihood of passing such a broad school reform is beyond improbable. Hence, we need to promote changes that can occur and have a proven track record of benefitting both parents and children.


So, let’s look at some of the issues behind these schools and determine if this is a direction to follow.


Some myths abound about Charter Schools which need to be addressed. For instance, a common theme touted is that these schools do well because they can pick and choose students. This is completely false. Initially, the schools cannot simply pick and choose their students. To date, the Monocacy Valley Montessori public school has had to use a lottery since they receive more applicants than they have capacity to educate. The likelihood of this happening with the two new Charter Schools applying to the school board is equally as probable.


Second, the issues of diversity are promulgated as a problem with Charter Schools. This too is false. In reality, studies have shown just the opposite – in Arizona, Massachusetts, Texas, and Minnesota actual data of students presents more diversity than the general population. Studies have also shown students in Charter Schools include higher percentages of attendees with lower than average test scoring, (and more importantly, these student’s test scores are improved), more percentages of lower than average family incomes, “at-risk” backgrounds, and limited English abilities. In short, Charter Schools do not take the cream of the crop, but generally have higher percentages of students with difficult backgrounds and learning issues.


Another myth by those opposed to these kinds of schools choices is that the parents who are very involved with their children’s education choose to apply to these schools. While it is true that parental involvement is a leading factor in a child’s development, these studies have found that corollary is more likely the reverse – the involvement comes about or is dramatically increased due to the Charter School. With more direct involvement with the parents, Charter Schools, unlike their public instruction alternative of status quo schools we now have, parents become much more engaged, both inside and outside school participation increases.


Finally, two immeasurably important aspects to Charter Schools should be acknowledged. Unlike our status quo public schools, Charter Schools must announce their academic goals at their onset and, more importantly, they are held accountable to these goals.


Also, Charter Schools are a matter of choice. Parents who determine to enroll their children can just as easily choose to remove them from a Charter School. Having this option of choice will provide not only a measureable and accountable option for who pays for our schools – that includes everyone who pays taxes – but it will have an influence on the status quo schools as these students measurably improve. A local example, Chesapeake Science Point, has already shown this kind of success by achieving a status of “Best in the Nation” via the American Math Challenge Competition.


But what about the costs? As generally noted, Charter Schools costs in the range of $9,000 to $10,000** per student compared to the Frederick County Public Schools cost estimates of $12,500 per student. But comparing these costs outright is very misleading, especially when one tries to determine the accounting methods currently in use by our public school system.


For instance, our school board does not have any payment toward transportation for Charter Schools. If a student lives on the route, they may receive transportation service – otherwise it is up to the parents to transport the student.


Another exclusion is Title 1 funding – generally this includes funding for “professional development, instructional materials, resources to support educational programs, and parental involvement promotion.” And, teacher salaries are determined by the state and the local school board in conjunction with the school system and its union representatives – hence, these costs are static.


But, as noted by Frederick County Schools Superintendent Dr. Linda Burgee, Charter Schools can keep the difference in payments toward electricity, et. al., if they implement cost saving programs. When one considers that currently Charter Schools in Frederick County must find their own building(s), one has to question how much savings can be achieved through this source of funding in comparison to the many expenses accrued.


For instance, of the $5,600 the school system receives from the Frederick County for each student, the school system keeps approximately 20% from each of the 270 Monocacy Valley Montessori charter school students for purposes other than those of the particular students.


From an email correspondence with the Monocacy Montessori Communities “MMCI did take FCPS to court regarding the funding calculation, [t]he ruling resulted in the state funding formula that is used. To change it would take changes in the legislation or different ruling.” While the MMCI did agree to this expense when the school was set up, “the result doesn't make a real difference in the money the school receives.”


Often these funds are specified as necessary to offset central office functions – again, it is important to note how difficult it is to determine actual costs when reviewing our school system’s accounting practices and system tracking for staff time. But, the Monocacy Valley Montessori Charter School does use central office functions.


As noted by school board member Dr. Bonnie Borsa, the school system does not include the cost for new schools in the cost per student – it is a county debt source. She also noted no savings will be accrued if children leave the current system for a Charter School as the full cost for these status quo schools will need to be paid.*** While this comment is technically correct, it is an interesting picture of the view our Board of Education has of choice in schooling being offered to both parents and taxpayers. If an alternative such as Charter Schools takes hold, a significant cost savings, (as well as improved education) could well be the final outcome.




* I have been a member of Frederick Education Reform through their Yahoo email group for a number of years.


** Approximately $8,500 per student with an in-kind service charge from Frederick County Public Schools of approximately $1,600 per student. The biggest piece of the in-kind money is for Special Education services – very likely around 80% of these funds.


*** These comments were made during a November 17, 2009, meeting between the school board and the Board of County Commissioners. While there are not transcripts of these meetings available, one can listen and write down what is said.


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