Get Schooled in School Choice

schoolchoiceWith about a million students across the state of Maryland, it’s safe to say there are a lot of families out there making decisions about school. Do you want your kids in the local public school? Maybe a private would be better fit, but doesn’t that get expensive? Or perhaps you’d like your children to have some religious instruction integrated into their other academics?

Both helpfully and unhelpfully, the Baltimore area has a plethora of schools to choose from including public, charter, private and parochial ones. Just last spring, the Maryland General Assembly approved a $5 million budget appropriation to fund private school tuition for low-income students—generally referred to as a voucher program.

This program is controversial and took about a decade of trying before it passed the Assembly. Proponents say it will give low-income students access to more schools, including Catholic or Jewish day schools, that might be a better fit. Opponents—mostly teacher unions, public schools administrators and school boards—contend that while vouchers sound great in theory, in practice they take money from the public school systems that could use that funding.

Whatever side of the argument you fall on, that program is now in place and each family is faced with education decisions that can be difficult to navigate. Below, we break down the benefits and potential challenges that come with each type of school.

Public Schools

Public schools are those that are funded by local and state taxes, and those that likely need the least explanation, since a vast majority of students will attend their local public schools. They are free for all students, no matter ability or socioeconomic status. By law, public schools are required to provide education to all students, including those with special needs.

Public schools in the state are regulated by the Maryland State Department of Education, which is overseen the Maryland State Board of Education, a 12-member body appointed by the governor (and approved by the state Senate) that includes one student member.

Most education decisions are left to school boards at a local level, with the MSDE providing guidance and recommended policies, says department spokesperson Bill Reinhard. The department also administers the state assessment each year.

Baltimore City and Baltimore County are the third- and fourth-largest school districts in the state, behind Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in the suburban Washington, D.C. area. Baltimore City has been under fire in recent years, and the embattled former CEO resigned last spring. This school year is a fresh start for the district.

The public schools also include magnet schools, which are schools with programs that focus on a particular subject, like fine arts or science and engineering—think the Baltimore School for the Arts or the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville.

Charter Schools

A subset of public schools, charter schools operate within public school districts, but have more autonomy and ability to control curriculum and approaches to education. While some charter schools are successful in their aims, others across the country have come under fire for lax regulations, lack of transparency and exploitation by for-profit groups. (You may have seen that particularly scathing takedown from “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” recently.)

Maryland, however, has fairly strict rules about setting up a charter school, and thus most of its charter schools are well-regarded and regulated. All new charter schools must be approved by local school boards before they can open. The state has a total of 50 charter schools, about half of which are in Baltimore City, according to Reinhard.

“For the most part, these are grassroots movement people who are interested in certain subjects, people who are interested in a certain curriculum, people who want to go into a certain neighborhood,” he says.

The KIPP schools, for instance, operate 200 schools in 20 states, including two in Baltimore—KIPP Ujima Village Academy (grades 5-8) and KIPP Harmony Academy (grades K-4), which were founded in 2002 and 2009, respectively, and serve about 1,500 students. Their underlying goal is to provide high quality education and access to educational resources, in underserved populations. Like most charter schools in the area, attendance is open to any in the district, but if more kids apply than there are spots, attendance is awarded by lottery.

For KIPP, the majority (about three-quarters) of its students are residents of the school’s local neighborhood, Park Heights. “It was designed to be a community school, to give parents choice and a chance to be engaged in their kids’ education,” says Kathryn Mastandrea, KIPP’s director of development.

Other charter schools may be dedicated to a certain educational philosophy—like Montessori—while others might be aimed at fostering certain kinds of skills, or reaching out to specific populations, like KIPP. Charter schools can be difficult to get into, if the school is popular, but can be a beneficial alternative to traditional education for some students.

Private Schools

Schools that operate without government funding are private. The private umbrella includes independent schools (those overseen by a board of trustees or governors) and parochial (religious), as well as schools that are both or neither of those.

The East Coast, in general, is a private school-heavy area. AIMS, an association of independent schools in Maryland and D.C. boasts more than 100 member schools serving about 45,000 students. Often, these schools are seen as having more rigorous academics and higher standards. As a result, they also tend to have high college admittance rates, especially in Ivy League schools.

The major challenge with private schools is that they cost money—often, a lot of it. While many schools do provide some scholarships, tuition from these schools can be anywhere from $14,000 to upward of $25,000 per year, which places many families out of contention even with scholarships or vouchers.

However, according to AIMS Executive Director Peter Baily, the vast majority of member schools have robust financial aid programs. “No family, regardless of income, should turn away from the option of independent schooling,” he says.

According to the AIMS site, the diversity in their member schools is at about 35 percent, and more than a quarter of students receive financial aid of some sort.

Baily says that different independent schools have different missions, but, in general, “there’s a wonderful freedom and opportunity that independent schools have in terms of designing the daily schedule, in terms of designing curriculum, in terms of designing enrichment programs, in terms of designing service projects.”

Parochial Schools

Religious private schools, also called parochial schools, factor a religious education into their academics and often feature a religious ceremony on a regular basis. In the Baltimore area, this includes Catholic schools, schools of other Christian denominations and Jewish day schools.

Baily, whose organization AIMS includes a number of religiously-affiliated schools, says that one of the things that sets independent schools apart is the desire to create and sustain a community that lives up to the mission of the school. In the case of parochial schools, that community would often revolve around a particular religious group.

Those who choose religious schools are often doing so because of a dedication to faith, or a desire to have their children learn in a faith-based curriculum. However, parochial schools do not require all students who attend to share that religion, and most schools will have students of different religious affiliations.

Many parochial schools are connected to specific churches or temples, although not all. The Catholic Schools are overseen by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but other religious schools do not operate under the same type of hierarchy.

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