Guest Post: Baltimore official: district evolves to reflect innovative conditions of chartering sector

This blog post originally appeared on the Education Innovating blog run by Education Evolving from 2010 to 2011. It has now been merged into our main blog.

Editor’s note: Each Friday we feature guest bloggers that are involved in rethinking what is possible with schooling and the education system.

Laura Weeldreyer is deputy chief of staff for the Superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools. In this guest post, pushing against a recent report from the Fordham Foundation, Weeldreyer describes the reasoning behind that district’s move to create conditions inside the district that provide more autonomy to innovative schools and programs.

On Tuesday, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington DC released a report called America's Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents. Baltimore gets a C rating, in part because of our charter sector, which Fordham believes to be one of the major engines of innovation in cities. Why does Baltimore score low on this measure of innovation? According to Fordham, and I don’t disagree, Maryland has a weak charter law and a charter-ambivalent state department. The state as a whole is not particularly pro-charter. These are factors over which Baltimore has little to no control. But we are a district deeply committed to reform and our student outcomes are on a dramatic upward trajectory. What to do?

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Lemons create an opportunity for innovation. When the rules and constraints are too great, the collective pressure seems to squeeze something sweet out of those lemons… at least that’s what we have found in Baltimore.

Since 2005 – Maryland was late to the charter game – we have opened 29 charter schools, serving 10% of the students in Baltimore. We have also opened up other pipelines for new school creation, which allows us to be more strategic and progressive than the current state law, while continuing to leverage the energy and public interest in charters. What’s more, because charter schools in Maryland remain part of the school district (instead of becoming their own local education authority), we have an intimate relationship with our charter schools. This has led to a significant series of innovative systemic reforms – all based on the success of the charter sector. Within the past three years we have implemented a new weighted per pupil funding allocation for all schools; opened up all middle and high schools to full student/family choice; and given school leaders a huge amount of autonomy, in exchange for greater accountability. Sound familiar?

The Baltimore charter sector outperforms the traditional system schools. But the good news for all our kids is that the gap between charter and non charter schools is closing, while all schools improve. It’s definitely lemonade when all schools get better and all kids benefit.

The new Fordham Foundation report gives us a C for our lack of a climate that supports innovation. I would argue that Baltimore has actually showed tremendously innovative leadership in refusing to shy away from the hard work of reform, just because the conditions aren’t right. In fact, I think Baltimore should get extra credit for taking a crate of lemons and making lemonade. When a district leads the way in innovation, what unforeseen opportunities are created for the entrepreneurs and partner organizations? When a district embraces innovation, what do schools become free to do? What space gets created? And in turn, what becomes possible for our kids?

Lemonade, anyone?

Image: Laura Weeldreyer

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