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Pushing back against the national wave of school privatization, Baltimore principal Matt Hornbeck says equitable funding and high-quality teachers are the keys to educational excellence

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JAISAL NOOR: While Maryland’s public schools are among the top in the nation, Baltimore’s school system continues to struggle. Some, like Republican governor Larry Hogan and right-wing, Sinclair Broadcasting “Project Baltimore,” say the problem isn’t a lack of funding, it’s waste and mismanagement.
LARRY HOGAN: …simply cannot allow children to be punished year after year because their adult leaders are failing.
JAISAL NOOR: They, along with the likes of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos say the solutions lie with expanding privately-run vouchers and charter schools. Currently, Maryland has some of the strongest regulations on charter schools in the country. All charter school teachers are unionized, and all charter schools are operated by their local school district instead of a private or for-profit operator. Critics say such restrictions make Maryland’s charter laws the worst in the country.
MATT HORNBECK: I think that Maryland has the best charter law in the nation, not the worst.
JAISAL NOOR: So, we sat down with Matt Hornbeck, who heads the highly-acclaimed, Hampstead Hill Academy.
MATT HORNBECK: It’s terrific that we have control over hiring and our curriculum and, most of all, control over our budget. Site-based control and in this format as a charter school in Maryland really helps schools make the decisions that are needed to improve student achievement, and I think that it works well in Maryland.
Unlike other states where charter schools are their own district, their own LEA, Maryland’s law does not provide for that and here I think that works very well. I think we have a much higher success rate. Certainly, the teachers that work in charter schools are more well-compensated. Their benefits are better. I think if you look at-
JAISAL NOOR: They’re all part of the union.
MATT HORNBECK: They’re all part of the union. If you look at any state or district where there is collective bargaining that the job security and the higher living wage that’s paid to teachers and better benefits are a key piece of why they’re able to attract top talent and why top talent wants to stay.
So, I think that, in my 15 years here, 12 as a charter school, that’s a key piece of the work. I mean, frankly, it’s the whole game. Attracting and keeping top teachers really makes all the difference.
JAISAL NOOR: Now, as a principal, having a union means you have less power. Why do you support unionization?
MATT HORNBECK: I actually don’t believe that having a union means less power for principals or superintendents. I think that a strong union and a strong teaching workforce that’s well represented by a strong union is actually good for kids, it’s good for families, it’s good for a city. And I certainly think that having a living wage and good benefits creates the job market that allows for teachers to come and work and stay and build a career at the school district rather than move around.
I think if you look at lots of other districts that are not represented by collective bargaining units, you see salaries that are two-thirds or less and that that is frankly not what teachers should be paid. The entire body of work is about who’s standing in front of your kid each day. And so, you want that person to be well-compensated and be able to attract the top people.
JAISAL NOOR: Another thing that’s often raised in stories by “Project Baltimore” or other critics of the public school system in Baltimore City is that they say Baltimore has some of the highest funding in the state and the country but it’s not returning the results.
CHRIS PAPST: Baltimore City schools spend about $16,000 per student every year, the fourth highest in the nation.
LARRY HOGAN: Baltimore City Schools’ funding is the fourth highest per-pupil funding of all of the 13,500 school systems in America.
JAISAL NOOR: But the narrative put forth by Hogan and “Project Baltimore” dismissed the state’s own studies that have found Baltimore schools need hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional funding to reach adequacy.
How do you respond to that?
MATT HORNBECK: I think that there are complex issues in public education that aren’t distilled into single soundbites, and that the work is, especially when you have hyperconcentrations of poverty and English language learners and special education students, the work is that much more challenging. And I think that there is incredible accountability from the superintendent to the principal to the teacher. We are under regular reviews in terms of student performance and financial audits.
And I don’t think that there is light oversight. And in fact, the oversight, if you look at the charter world and charter schools in other states, in Michigan and Arizona and elsewhere, you do see financial challenges that charters have. And it’s very difficult to open a brand new school in terms of the operations.
I also think that a lot of this is really related to politics and not related to teaching and learning, and it’s about the control of budget and the power that unions have or don’t have and the power that corporations or business have or don’t have and that. Unfortunately, the students and principals in schools are a proverbial football or a pawn in that conversation and that you’re really moving around chairs on the Titanic when you talk about organizational models.
Whether it’s a traditional school or a charter school, you need good teachers, and you need enough money to make it all work, and you need research-based curriculum, and you need to have something like restorative practices that creates the culture and climate that is good for students and teachers. And then you need to make sure that you’re making the thousands of smaller classroom and small group instructional based decisions that have to happen in order for students to succeed.
So, the work at the school is somewhat disconnected when you look at best practices at a traditional school or best practices at a charter school. The work is somewhat disconnected from the conversations occurring at the national and state level around policy. Good quality teaching and learning looks dramatically the same wherever you see it.
JAISAL NOOR: And so right now, although it’s delayed, the current commission is in the process of allocating some $2 billion in state money, figuring out where that will go, where it’ll increase equality and equity in school funding statewide. They’ve had people on “Project Baltimore-”
CHRIS SUMMERS: Regardless of how much money we throw at the system, it’s not moving a needle with regards to test scores. The entire system needs to change, fundamentally change the way it’s delivering its product.
JAISAL NOOR: More money is not going to help the educational outcomes. They say we need privatization, we need to radically change the system. What’s your response to that? Is funding a key issue in Baltimore City Schools?
MATT HORNBECK: So, I think that if you look at our physical plan, our buildings in the city, if you look at our class size in the city, if you look at any of the audits that show that there’s not waste and bloat in the system, if you look at what it costs per year for a student to attend an independent school in Baltimore City, we have five or six independent schools, roughly their tuition is 23 or $24,000 a year, if you look at what some of the counties with far less challenging populations, far lower poverty rates, far fewer English language learners, far fewer special education students as a percent of the district, you see huge differences in spending.
And resource allocation experts around the country, including Allan Odden and Karen Hawley Miles and others, really, their research and their entire body of work indicates that weighted funding formulas is the way to go and that it simply costs more to educate some kids than other kids. Now, gifted kids need to be in that weighted formula as well. So, it doesn’t exclude the students at the highest performance levels.
And so, it’s very difficult to say that I don’t think there’s any evidence that privatization or corporations or businesses can run public schools better than cities and municipalities and towns and townships. I just don’t see that. There’s no evidence anywhere that that is the case.
JAISAL NOOR: Let’s talk about test scores for a minute.
JAISAL NOOR: A lot has been made about the fact that Baltimore City students don’t perform as well on standardized tests, on high stakes tests as their counterparts in the rest of the state.
LARRY HOGAN: Recent investigative reporting discovered six Baltimore City Schools where not one single student was proficient in any state testing.
CHRIS PAPST: Of Baltimore City’s 39 high schools, 13 had zero students proficient in math.
JAISAL NOOR: And Maryland has some of the highest test scores in the country and Baltimore is always lagging. What is the reason for that?
MATT HORNBECK: The cyclical nature of poverty and the hyperconcentration of poverty is a contributing factor. It is very challenging without adequate resources to do the work, even if you didn’t have students who were challenged. So, that is a key piece of it.
I frankly don’t think we’ve ever adequately funded Baltimore City Schools. So, we don’t know what adequate funding looks like or equitable funding looks like. I don’t think that if you look at what experts say it takes to fund schools serving the students that live in Baltimore City, we haven’t done that. I am hopeful that Kirwan will get at that over the next 18 months and that they will look at adequate funding equitably distributed across the state.
One of the interesting things is that, Strong Schools Maryland is an advocacy group that’s helping to educate the people around the state, and one of the things that they have learned and shared is that there are more than 800 schools in every one of the 24 counties and the city that have 40% or more students living in poverty. And so, this is not just a Baltimore City issue. Poverty exists across the state, and it’s something that we hope Kirwan will look at closely, the Kirwan commission, in terms of how funds should be distributed.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.