State expands charter enrollment, but still far behind

The State Board of Education Wednesday approved expanding by 380 the number of students Connecticut’s charter schools can enroll. But according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education, Connecticut remains well below the national average in the percentage of public school students attending charters.

It’s not for lack of demand: According to the most recent annual report by the State Department of Education, charter school enrollment would double if everyone on the waiting list got a seat.

“That’s an ongoing issue. Applications far exceed capacity,” said Mark Linabury, chief of the state’s School Choice office at the education department.

State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor acknowledged the surplus in applications, but said, “I am concerned about quantity, but I’m also concerned about quality. It is important that we provide more public school choices.”

The state also turns down applications to open new charter schools every year.

This year, seven organizations that applied for state approval to open charter schools, including four that were applying for the second time, were not accepted. Only two new charter schools have opened in the state in the past seven years, although 27 applications were filed. The state accepted no applications in 2006 and 2009.

The additional 380 charter seats — which will cost the state nearly $4 million each year — were awarded to already operating charters that the state department reports have “a strong record of student achievement.” More than half of those new seats will go to Achievement First, the state’s largest network of charter schools, that Pryor helped open before being tapped by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to lead the state department.

The state’s ethics panel ruled earlier this year there is no conflict of interest in his department’s recommending the expansion of enrollment at these schools.

Restrained state funding has largely resulted in the State Board of Education limiting enrollment growth in previous years. The board Wednesday unanimously authorized 380 new seats in 10 charter schools in the state, but the number was 72 fewer than the schools had requested.

Those seats were turned down, the adopted expansion reads, because the “number exceeds the state budget appropriation.”

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 enroll from year to year, and enrollment is not allowed to exceed 250 students without a special exemption.

Charter school leaders, who rallied at the State Capitol earlier this year, have said for years the state needs to provide more opportunities to more students.

“This is an investment worthy of being made,” Malloy told those attending the rally. “This is our day. This is our opportunity.”

Malloy’s proposed budget provided millions in new funding to expand enrollment in existing charter schools and to open new schools. That funding did not make it into the final adopted budget.

“We did not fight for that,” Pryor said. “There was no application of significant quality.”

Pryor said while the applications to open new charter schools that would have added 1,600 new seats were rejected, they will be able to update their application and reapply to open for the 2013-14 school year.

That leaves Connecticut behind other states in charter school enrollment. Nationwide, according to the U.S. education department, 3.3 percent of all public school students were enrolled in charters in the 2009-2010 school year–the most recent available. In Connecticut, that figure was 0.9 percent, putting the state 34th of the 39 states that allowed charter schools.

With the increase approved Wednesday, the state will have 6,451 charter seats for some 570,000 public school students — about 1.1 percent.

The new education reform law calls for four new charter schools to open by 2017. However, for these schools to open, state legislators will need to provide the $10,500 to $11,100 for each student enrolled.