Seven charter school operators are accusing the Baltimore City Public Schools system of unlawfully withholding a portion of state funding and are asking the state to intervene. But the system says those charter schools simply don’t want to pull their own weight when paying for students with disabilities.

Afya Baltimore Inc., Baltimore Montessori Inc., City Neighbors, KIPP Baltimore Inc., Patterson Park Public Charter School Inc., New Song Community Learning Center and Living Classrooms Foundation petitioned the Maryland State Department of Education on Monday for a declaratory judgement to resolve the legal dispute. According to the petition, the charter schools are asking the state to rule on whether the system can keep 25% of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future funding earmarked for charter schools.

The Blueprint, state legislation that brings extra funding to public schools, requires school systems to put at least 75% of those funds toward individual schools, according to the petition. State law also requires school systems to pay schools based on the number of students they have.

The city schools received $603.3 million from the Blueprint. A funding formula cited in the petition states each school should get $8,425 per child. However, after the city schools apply what is referred to as the 25% “fee,” charter schools received only $6,319 per student this school year.

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Holding the 25% is the city’s way of having the charter schools contribute to other costs the system needs to pay, including for special education and pre-K. But the charter schools say that goes against Maryland law and the Blueprint.

“Nowhere in the text of this law, nor in any other provision of the Blueprint legislation, did the General Assembly amend the charter school funding law ... or otherwise authorize local school boards to charge a mandatory 25% fee to exclude a substantial portion of Blueprint program funding from being distributed to public charter schools in the same manner as all other funding sources,” the petition stated.

Not only do the charter schools want to put an end to the fee, they are also requesting the system pay back the money they withheld.

Representatives from the seven public charter operations did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment. Their attorney also did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for the city schools, said the charter schools’ request doesn’t align with what the Kirwan Commission, the state work group that proposed the funding formula, intended.

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“I think the primary thing they are arguing is that they don’t want to pay for the cost of some of our most vulnerable students,” Perkins-Cohen said.

The system sent a letter to the school community warning them of the charter schools’ actions and asking them to not let it undermine the Blueprint.

“Unfortunately, a small group of seven charter school operators is threatening to diminish the Blueprint Act’s investments by taking more than their fair share,” the letter reads.

It states the charter school operators say they are underfunded, although their funding has increased 37% since the 2021-2022 school year, proposing to keep their funding increases from the Blueprint and save money by not contributing to “more than $200 million in FY23 alone needed to fully fund educational services for children with disabilities” and pre-K students.

“If they have their way, the 124 traditional schools in the school system will carry the entire cost of serving our most vulnerable students, while those seven charter school operators benefit at their expense,” the letter states.

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The city has 31 charter schools run by 21 operators. One of the operators, Baltimore Curriculum Project, sent a letter to families on Tuesday noting that it is not among the seven operators who approached the state.

“BCP strongly supports the fair and equitable funding of all schools in Baltimore City,” wrote Laura Doherty, president of BCP.

The district uses a different funding formula for charter schools than for traditional schools because the district doesn’t offer certain administrative services to charter schools. That leaves the charters with more cash. If the charter schools prevailed, the system said, a charter school of 500 kids would have $1.8 million more in funding than a traditional school of the same size. A charter school of 1,300 students would receive $4.7 million more than an equivalent-sized traditional school.

Perkins-Cohen said Blueprint legislation specifies how much schools get per student, but local systems have the power to hold back a portion. They are using the 25% withholdings to cover a $200 million gap in special education and pre-K funding not covered by the Blueprint, as well as for retiree health benefits for former employees, severance pay and out-of-county placements for students who are homeless.

McKenzie Allen, executive director of the Maryland Alliance of Public Charter Schools, said she was floored by the system’s letter. It felt emotionally driven and not transparent about how they are spending the money, she said. She called the charter schools brave for going “against an entity that determines they exist and ... how much money they get. That is a terrifying place to be in.”

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She also noted that charter school students have the same demographic makeup as the kids in traditional schools, and she said vulnerable students in charter schools will suffer from the way the city school system allocates their funding.

“They say that everyone has to pay their fair share, but there is a lack of transparency in what that fair share is and what it does,” Allen said.

The nonprofit director said there’s been a history of disparities between the funding of traditional schools and Maryland charter schools over the 20 years they have existed. Five of the seven charter school operators who petitioned the state education department were among those who sued the city school system in 2015, arguing that the district was not consistent or transparent in how it allocated funding. According to the Maryland Judiciary website, the case remains open in circuit court.

Allen said the charter schools don’t have much power, and the schools tried to speak with the district about the funding before going to the state.

“The district did respond, but there wasn’t a transparent agreement or understanding,” she said. “Regardless of the narrative shared by the city schools, this is really for charter schools asking the state board if Baltimore City Schools interpretation of the Blueprint is accurate.”

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