For more than three years, parents worked with elected officials to bring St. Mary's County its first charter school. And during that time, another group of parents and elected officials questioned why the county needs a charter school.When people think about charter schools, they tend to think about the alternative schools being located in poor or poorly performing urban districts, not in a relatively affluent suburban community. But the existence of charters to this point has been focused in those poor, urban areas I think as a matter of circumstances and perceived need.
Nearly all of the publicly funded, privately operated charter schools in Maryland have opened in low-performing school systems. St. Mary's, a fast-growing but still relatively rural county, has High School Assessment and Maryland School Assessment scores that rank among the best half-dozen in the state.
Two-thirds of the state's 23 charter schools are in Baltimore, where test scores are the worst in Maryland. Another three are in Prince George's County, which joined Baltimore and Wicomico County in 2006 as the only school systems to fail to meet adequate yearly progress requirements, which measure schools' improvement.
But supporters of the Chesapeake Public Charter School, which will open in the fall, say even the best test scores can belie schools that are not serving all children well, and that parents deserve a choice of where to educate their children.
"You know, this charter school might be easier if we had a failing school system," said William M. Mattingly, vice chairman of the county school board. "People can't say, 'They're doing this because the rest of their schools aren't worth a darn.' "
Charter schools need several things that are far easier to find in urban areas. First, they need space to work and urban areas offer a number of alternatives between older school buildings no longer in use or unused office buildings. Second, they need students and urban areas tend to offer more students in a denser population making transportation and other logistics easier. Third, charters schools need a market driven demand.
Charter schools have grown in these urban areas largely because of demand. Parents whose children are trapped in poor performing districts have demanded alternatives and charter schools have provided that alternative--quite successfully. The debate that has occurred in St. Mary's county is a result of the success of charters in these urban areas. People have come to expect that charter schools, because of their success in poor urban areas, have no place in suburban neighborhoods. But as proponents of the school in St. Mary's have pointed out, just because a school system is successful does not mean every student is successful.
Charter schools are about alternatives for students and parents who want something different. Yes, I believe charter schools inject a modicum of competition into an otherwise monopolistic system, a competitive spirit that has immediate primary and long-term secondary benefits. But charter schools are, first and foremost, about serving a need. The need is not necessarily "real," in terms of how a school board or the rest of the community would think of the matter, i.e. poor schools and minority kids trapped in bad circumstances through no fault of their own.
Rather need is a matter of perception and the parents of the 261 families who competed for the 160 seats in the St. Mary's chater school sense a need to find something different. So long as a need is perceived by some members of the community and they are willing to seek out alternatives, then the school board and the rest of the community should not stand in the way. Just because a community is relatively affluent does not mean that the families in that district can necessarily afford private school, so a public school alternative is needed.
The mind set of school boards can be summed up in the viewpoint of St. Mary's County School Board Member Cathy Allen
"This is a state mandate, so we don't have all that much choice in the matter," said Cathy Allen, a member of the board who has become a lead critic of the Chesapeake school and the state law governing charters. "Sometimes I think that people who don't have experience with the school system may miss some of the programs offered and the environmental focus of several schools."This viewpoint seems so typical of many school boards. "We have ambitious plans and we don't want anyone else to mess that up" demonstrates a narrow vision of people whose sole job is to make sure the students in their district get a good education, it is not necessarily to force a traditional public education on students and families.
Allen said she does not object to all charter schools but believes they need not be an urgent priority in St. Mary's County, where school officials have ambitious plans for existing schools. Instead, officials have spent dozens of hours in the past several months discussing the Chesapeake school. Charter schools, she said, are often designed by people who have a "marvelous dream" but lack the experience to implement them well.
Charters in suburbs and rural areas will continue to grow because no school system is perfect and some students fall through the cracks. Those students deserve help. Chaters will also serve a vital role by acting as additional magnet schools or other curricular alternatives that allow students with particular interests to follow those interests.
In the end, charters are not about the accident of their early development in poor urban areas. Charters are about options and just because a school district is the top in a state doesn't mean that some students want a choice. Why should only poor inner city kids get a choice?