Lawmakers aim to blend charter and public school test scores

Hartford Public Schools — one of the state’s lowest-performing districts — has spent millions in recent years sending money to a nearby charter school, and in exchange the district officials get to use Achievement First’s high test scores when reporting their students’ progress.

“We are basically buying their test scores,” said Robert Cotto Jr., a member of the Hartford school board. “Our scores have gone up to the roof.”

While it’s unclear just how much this technique has boosted Hartford’s test scores, a bill that has already cleared the state House of Representatives will allow the nine other low-performing school districts with charter schools to count their scores in exchange for support.

“All parties benefit,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the Education Committee. “I don’t see that absent legislation like this, the parties working together… Struggling districts were at war with charters before this.”

For cities like New Haven or Bridgeport — where about 8 percent of students attend charter schools — this bill could possibly have a significant impact on test scores if officials decide to take advantage of it. Other districts that this bill could affect include Hamden, Manchester, New London, Norwalk, Norwich, Stamford and Winchester.

“I cannot express enough how thrilled I would be to work with the district in this manner. As a small, independent charter school, funding and resources are a constant struggle,” Gina Fafard, the executive director of ISAAC charter school in New London, told legislators on the Education Committee last month.

But with districts like New London and Bridgeport facing budget shortfalls of their own, diverting funding to charter schools could soon become a contentious issue.

In Hartford, the district helped with Achievement First’s startup costs by providing it with two former public schools, computers and at least $1.5 million for renovations. Since then the district has provided the school more than $2 million a year — or $2,817 per student this year — on top of the $10,200 per student the state currently provides charters.

“This is taking away money from Hartford Public Schools,” said Cotto, who voted against the arrangement. That contract requires his district to pick up the cost of maintenance, utilities, phone and Internet services at the school. The district also pays for the custodians, nurse and security guards and to provide lunch and breakfast for students. The district also provides transportation and special education services for students at the school.

These potential costs have not deterred Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch from supporting these agreements.

“Bridgeport is willing to invest in these charter school operators because they are willing to invest in our kids,” the Democratic mayor told the education committee last month.

The bill that now awaits a vote in the Senate does not guarantee a large price tag for districts that decide to participate since the bill does not prescribe what district officials must offer a charter school in order to blend the test scores.

“It is anticipated that a [district] would not enter into an agreement unless the costs to the district were minimal. For several districts there could be no additional costs,” the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis reports.

The ‘highest performing’ school in Hartford

When it came time to decide if Hartford would help out Achievement First financially, the district’s superintendent told legislators it was a no-brainer. The district was in the process of opening new school design models when the state created this pilot that provided an incentive for this teaming of charters and districts.

“We were interested in attracting research-based, high quality school designs,” Hartford Superintendent Christina M. Kishimoto told the committee.

Since the partnership began four school years ago, “Achievement First Hartford Academy has become Hartford’s highest performing neighborhood school by far.”

The tradeoff, by Cotto’s estimate, has resulted in the district getting to report higher test scores than those students in the schools they operate independently earn. For example, blending the scores of the 76 third graders at Achievement First with the 1,367 students elsewhere in the district boosts the district’s reading scores by 1.2 percent, he reports. Such an increase can be the difference between the district reaching the federal and state benchmarks set for them, or not. Test scores also help determine the size of administrative bonuses.

What the overall impact has been in Hartford is unclear. When creating the pilot program in 2008, legislators required the State Department of Education to report the impact of blending scores on performance benchmarks by this October. This bill would push that deadline back to October 2014.

Charter school expansions

With around 4,000 students vying to enroll in one of the state’s charter schools on a wait list each year, legislators are moving forward with opening new charter schools.

The governor is proposing that the state spend $11 million over the next two years to open nine new charter schools. The legislature’s budget committee is proposing that nearly $1 million be provided to open four new charter schools that reach agreements with their local school systems. These “local” charter schools are reimbursed $3,000 per-student as opposed to the $10,200 state charters receive.

Despite daunting odds, seven groups have applied to open charter schools. In the last seven years, two new charter schools have opened in the state, although 27 applications were filed.

Kishimoto on Wednesday also announced she is backing Achievement First’s opening a new elementary school in partnership with the district.

If the legislature decides to provide funding for new charter schools, any district that wants to blend test scores with the school will need this bill to pass, including Hartford, since the pilot program is over.

“If House Bill No. 6622 is not approved, the relationship between Hartford Public Schools and Achievement First will end, thereby leaving nearly 900 students without a school to attend,” she told members of the Education Committee last month.