Charter schools: Many apply, few new schools open

Despite daunting odds, seven organizations have applied this year for state approval to open new charter schools, including four that were turned down last year.

Only two new charter schools have opened in the state in the last six years, although 20 applications were filed. The state didn’t accept applications at all in 2006 and 2009.

“A number of new charter schools each year apply, but it’s always a question of funding,” said Dacia Toll, who opened one of the state’s first charter schools and is now the president of Achievement First, a network of charters based in the Connecticut, New York and soon in Rhode Island.

dacia toll

Dacia Toll of Achievement First: ‘It’s always a question of funding’ (New Haven Independent photo)

But education reformers and charter school applicants are hopeful their luck may soon change now that Stefan Pryor has been named as the state’s top education leader.

For Pryor–who worked with Toll to open Achievement First’s Amistad Academy in New Haven–this year’s request for nearly 1,600 new charter school seats will be one of many first tests.

“The process is stacked against us,” said Ron Ward, who is applying for the second time to open elementary charter school for 250 students in Norwich. “I am hoping because of who the commissioner is, he will get the support to fund these great plans once and for all.”

Schools hoping to expand, like Achievement First’s Hartford Academy, also are affected by the logjam.

“A lot of groups are just not inclined to apply in the first place because it’s a lot of work and they already know what the outcome will be,” said Jo Lutz, director of the Connecticut Charter School Network. “Something has to change.”

Toll said the only reason she is pushing to add high school seats to the Hartford facility is so the students at her middle school have a good high school to go to next year.

“We will not be expanding in Connecticut any further,” she said, although that could change if the state improves funding for charters.

A task force has begun to look at how schools are financed, but does not plan to make final recommendations for a complete overhaul for the formula for another year. During their last meeting, they heard about Rhode Island’s school funding system, where charters are funded equally to public schools.

During his first days on the job, Pryor was non-committal about his plans for charter schools, saying he supports great schools no matter what type they are. He also said he is reserving judgment on how charters should be funded.

“The commissioner is committed to expanding schools that have proven results. … His interest is in replicating great schools, and that includes great charter schools,” said Mark Linabury, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.

In Connecticut, charter schools receive a $9,400 per student reimbursement, but opening or expanding schools required approval from both the State Department of Education and the legislature.

“It’s always a bit challenging to expand charter schools,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a Democrat from West Hartford and co-chairman of the Education Committee. Because of the state’s tight budgets, “applications are typically a multi-year effort.”

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education says that with less than 1 percent of public school students attending charters, Connecticut ranks well below the national average. That’s not for lack of demand: The State Department of Education says charter school enrollment would double if everyone on the wait list got a seat.

By law, the SDE has until Dec. 26 to decide which, if any, applications they will recommend the legislature fund.