Charter schools won’t get federal jobs money

The state’s allocation of federal stimulus money intended to save teaching jobs in cash-strapped school districts excluded charter schools, many of which serve students in Connecticut’s poorest communities.

The experimental charter schools, along with the state’s technical high schools and some public magnet schools, were left out under a formula used by the state to distribute the $110 million in stimulus funds approved by Congress in August.

The money went to local school districts “while avoiding charter schools completely,” Michael Sharpe, CEO of Hartford’s Jumoke Academy, told the State Board of Education Wednesday.

The dissemination of funds showed “a willingness to ignore the plight of over 5,000 students” in public charter schools across the state, said Sharpe, president of the Connecticut Charter School Network.

Under federal rules, state officials had only two choices for distributing the money. One was to use the state’s school aid formula, known as the Education Cost Sharing grant (ECS), as a framework. The other would distribute the money with an emphasis on poorer communities following federal poverty guidelines under the Title I school aid program.

The state chose to use the ECS formula. Because charters, technical schools and regional magnet schools are funded under different state grants and not ECS, they did not qualify for the federal money.

“We were simply not given the option to select a formula that would send funds to everyone,” said Adam Liegeot, a spokesman for Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

Had the state chosen the Title I option, the charters, magnets and technical schools would have received some money but nine local school districts–Bolton, Colebrook, Darien, Hampton, Hebron, Norfolk, Ridgefield, Weston and Wilton–would have been left out.

Darien, Ridgefield, Weston and Wilton are in the highest socioeconomic grouping used by the state Department of Education to compare standardized test scores.

“This was a very difficult decision to make,” said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan. Nevertheless, the money allowed many hard-hit school districts, such as New Britain, to hire back dozens of teachers who had been laid off, he said.

“When you look at the impact of that funding, some very good things came about,” he said.

Charters, magnets and technical high schools all have voluntary enrollment policies and are part of a growing school choice movement in Connecticut. Their exclusion from the jobs fund highlights the hodgepodge of different funding formulas used to support the schools — an issue is being studied by an ad hoc committee of the State Board of Education.

Charter schools should have the same share of funding as traditional public schools, said Alex Johnston, head of the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAn. “We need to have a funding formula that acknowledges the number of schools of choice that educate tens of thousands of kids. We can’t keep forgetting them,” he said.

Among those attending Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting was 16-year-old Santiago Achinelli, who told the board that charter schools are being shortchanged, getting less money per pupil than most traditional public schools.

“We’ve been doing more with less,” said Achinelli, a junior at Common Ground High School, a charter school in New Haven.

Like other schools, charters, magnets and technical high schools are feeling the strain of the slumping economy.

“With the money from the [jobs bill], we could have brought on reading specialists . . . tutors for kids who are performing below standards,” Sharpe said. “We’re not providing the services we know kids need.”

However, an official who oversees several magnet schools in the Hartford region, said he agrees with the state’s decision to use the ECS formula even though the regional magnets did not qualify for the jobs money.

“Magnet schools, charter schools – we’re entrepreneurs. That’s the risk you take as entrepreneurs,” said Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council. “But public education is the bedrock. . . . I did not begrudge the fact the money went through ECS.

“We’re in tough times. You’ve got to make tough choices,” he said. “Not everyone can get everything they want anymore.”