Despite enrollment growth at charter schools, state still far behind

The State Board of Education Wedneday approved expanding the number of students Connecticut’s charter schools can enroll, but a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education ranks Connecticut well bellow the national average in the percentage of public school students that attend charters.

It’s not a lack of demand: The State Department of Education says charter school enrollment would double if everyone on the wait list got a seat. The state also turns down applications to open new charter schools every year.

charter school founder

Bruce Ravage, the founder and director of Park City Prep Charter School in Bridgeport: ‘It’s been an issue each year whether we would actually get that increase granted.’

“I think the rate of growth of charter school programs has been limited because of limited resources,” said Robert Kelly, charter school program director for the SDE. “There is a huge demand but there’s also a recognition that the financial component is not there.”

That restrained state funding has resulted in the State Board of Education limiting enrollment growth. The board authorized 622 new seats in the 18 charter schools in the state, but the number was 49 fewer than the schools had requested.

Last school year, requests for about 50 added seats were rejected because the state did not provide the $9,300 per student appropriation needed, said Mark Linabury, chief of the state’s School Choice office at the SDE.

Charter schools each year are required by state law to get permission from the State Board of Education to increase the number of students they enrolled from year to year and enrollment is not allowed to exceed 250 students without a special exemption.

Bruce Ravage, the founder and director of Park City Prep Charter School in Bridgeport, said that means annual uncertainty about whether the school could grow.

“It’s been an issue each year whether we would actually get that increase granted,” Ravage said Wednesday, standing outside the board meeting where his license was renewed for three years.

Funding restrictions also have contributed to slow growth of new charters. Of the nine applications to open charters in the next school year, two were withdrawn because of funding concerns, Kelly said. The other seven were rejected because of deficiencies in their applications.

Two charter schools approved in recent years have been unable to open because of a lack of state support, Kelly said.

“They withered on the vine,” he said.

That leaves Connecticut behind other states in charter school enrollment. Nationwide, according to the U.S. DOE, 2.9 percent of all public school students were enrolled in charters in the 2008-2009 school year–the most recent available. In Connecticut, that figure was 0.8 percent, putting the state 33rd of 40 states that allowed charter schools.

With the increase approved Wednesday, the state will have 6,071 charter seats for some 569,000 public school students–about 1.1 percent.

Ravage hopes his school will be able to help bump up that number. His school is hoping to expand enrollment by another 80 students and begin enrolling another grade in the upcoming years.

But his school is at the 250 student cap and state funding is iffy, so he said he understands he has a struggle ahead of him.

“I was discouraged from expanding to another grade when I began asking questions,” he said, noting available financing was the reason given by the SDE. “If we had another grade it would allow us to get better results for 80 more students. … But first we need to get approved and get the funding. I am not expecting that right now.”