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September 6, 2010

Lessons of School Choice Part 2

Earl 'Rocky' Mackintosh

In Part 1 of my column on this topic I outlined some of the differences between public and private education. The goal is to offer information that the new and existing members of the Frederick County Board of Education should consider as they move forward in this new school year.


As stated, my experiences in the world of private education taught me that while all private schools have their own culture and individual missions, the key to their success is that they can operate independently from a large over-reaching bureaucracy. This allows them to engage all member of the school family (students, teachers, administration, parents and the board of trustees) establishing a clear mission for the institution … and from that it creates a high level of engagement by all parties.


In 2002 when I finished my 16th year of private school board service, I read about the plight of a proposed public charter school in Frederick County – Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School. If approved by our local Board of Education, it was to be the first school of its kind in Maryland.


Being an advocate of the concept of school choice, I offered the fledgling group a hand; and while I understood the basics of the charter movement, I wanted to learn more, as I joined the ranks of the charter advocates.


Probably the best definition of a charter school is found the US Charter Schools website.


To paraphrase, charter schools are established and overseen by independent groups of parents or entities that have been granted a "charter," or performance, contract by the state or local school board to operate a nonsectarian school with public funds with an "increased level of autonomy." This contract is granted for a typical period of 3-to-5 years and is based upon a detailed "mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment" that must be approved by the granting authority.


The key element is the very high level of accountability that the charter school has to the granting authority, "the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them." In order to receive an extension to their charter, the school must demonstrate a certain level of success in fulfilling its mission.


Typically the program must be unique and not offered in the current public school environment. In the case of Frederick County, the granting authority is the Board of Education.


Students are selected by a lottery system from all students who apply and are eligible to attend the public school system.


There are tremendous parallels between how private and public charter education compare. Here are the five components I find similar:


1.      There is clear, believable and achievable mission that is established by all members of the school family – to students, teachers, and parents.


2.      There is a positive culture unified around the school's mission. Across the board there are high expectations of all member of the school family.


3.      Clear goals equate to transparency and clarity in holding all members accountable.


4.      With decentralized oversight, the increased autonomy gives the families a strong feeling of empowerment that naturally creates a high level of parental involvement.


5.      With the smaller school environment there is a more clearly defined structure, which allows the school to identify and address new and innovative practices.


With all that said, the Monocacy Valley Montessori Public School did receive its charter after a more than difficult approval process. The process made it very clear to me that the Board of Education and Superintendant Linda Burgee look at the charter movement in general as a threat to the establishment. In addition my observation and participation in the process also showed me that there is a very high level of arrogance with some long standing members of the school board which exudes the idea that they know better, and new ideas are not welcome.


It has been eight years now since the school was approved; and while there are always challenges that face the forerunner in any new process, the school is thriving with well over 200 children on the waiting list.


Due to its success other groups have come forth with applications for similar and other unique educational concepts. Some have been rejected by the school board.


In the current cycle two school applications are being considered: Carroll Creek Montessori and Frederick Classical charter schools.


Once again the process has not been easy for these applicants. The Board of Education and its administration have deeply scrutinized the applications and in some cases gone overboard by continuing their tradition of throwing unrealistic hurdles in front of these applicants.


From all this I hope that the school board candidates and those who remain in office will embrace the benefits of what the charter school movement has to offer our community, as well as the Frederick County Public School system.


In addition I ask them one very important question to consider: With the Board of Education and its superintendent placing such a high level of accountability, expectations, and transparency on charter school applicants, why are they not practicing what they preach in all other aspects of our public school system?


[Rocky Mackintosh is president of MacRo, Ltd., a Frederick based land and commercial real estate brokerage and development firm. He also authors the MacRo Report Blog (]


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