Connecticut’s charter school enrollment set to surge

State Board of Education members listen to testimony from a Bridgeport parent that supports more charter schools opening in his community

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

State Board of Education members listen to testimony from a Bridgeport parent who supports the opening of more charter schools in his community.

More Connecticut students than ever are about to have the chance to enroll in a charter school.

The State Board of Education has unanimously approved opening three new charter schools that will collectively enroll 520 students in the 2014-15 school year. Once those schools phase in additional grades to reach capacity over the next several years, 1,285 students in the Bridgeport, New Haven and Windham regions will be offered seats in one of these new charters. They join the other 18 charter schools already open in Connecticut, several of which are not yet at capacity.

The two-year state budget provides funding for 1,136 additional students to attend charter schools next year – a $12.5 million added expense.

But the state board wants more. On Wednesday, the board also approved applications from two other charter schools that would open once state lawmakers can fund them. Those schools – in Stamford and Bridgeport – would enroll another 1,157 students.

“Shame on us if we fail our children,” said Theresa Hopkins-Staten, vice chairwoman of the State Board of Education, raising her voice before a packed audience of parents and residents who are sharply divided on whether these new schools should open.

Speaking of the application for Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport – one of the three new charter schools that will open next year – state board members said they support providing students with a choice to leave their habitually failing schools.

“There are going to be 17,000-plus students who do not get into a charter school. You need to be just as committed to their success as those who are blessed to get into a charter school,” Hopkins-Staten said, directing her comments to the audience.

The opening of the three schools next year stems from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s 2012 education reform package, which the legislature passed almost unanimously.

“This is an investment worthy of being made,” the Democratic governor told charter school advocates during a rally in 2012 at the state Capitol. “This is our opportunity.”

Because of restrained state funding, the state school board has largely limited enrollment growth in previous years. During Malloy’s tenure, funding for charter schools has increased by $38.8 million a year – a 74 percent increase since 2011. Enrollment has increased by 2,500 students between the 2010-11 school year and this year — a 45 percent increase.

The main difference between charter schools and traditional public schools is who governs the school, which means, who sets the curriculum and its budget. Traditional public schools are operated by locally elected boards of education, while charter schools are typically run by nonprofit organizations. In addition, charter schools are largely exempt from various state education laws and regulations.

A parent from Bridgeport holds up a sign in opposition to additional charter schools opening in her community

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

A Bridgeport parent holds up a sign opposing the opening of more charter schools in her community

But not everyone agrees more charter schools is how to improve education for students in low-performing districts.

Dozens of opponents – who came from Bridgeport and Stamford – attended the daylong meeting on the topic in Hartford. Their chief concerns were that charters divert money from the traditional public schools, that the charters don’t teach the same students public schools have to, and that local elected school boards should be the ones deciding whether a new charter school should open.

“We ask the state to respect our call to put a moratorium on new charter schools,” Bridgeport Board of Education President Sauda Baraka told state officials. Her board voted to prohibit additional charters in Bridgeport and the Stamford school board voted to urge the board not to approve a new charter to open there. “Our charge to close the achievement gap [between minority students and their peers] will be derailed. We implore you not to undermine our district.”

Howard Gardner, another Birdgeport school board member, said the issue with opening new charters is largely a funding one.

“It siphons money from a district that is grossly underfunded,” he told the state board. If his district received all the funding it is entitled to, based on the state education-funding formula that takes into account student poverty and the city’s ability to raise money locally, the state would have sent Bridgeport an additional $37.6 million, he said.

Robert Traber, the incoming president of the teachers’ union in Bridgeport, agrees.

Charters “Do not work. They are not the solution,” the teacher said. “We know the solution: provide the funds.”

With the State Department of Education reporting that nearly one in 10 students in Bridgeport already attends a charter school, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said it isn’t true that money is being “siphoned” from Bridgeport for charters.

“There has been no negative impact,” he told the state board, pointing out that over the last three years the state has sent districts $140 million more a year in additional  funding, almost all of which went to the state’s 30 lower performing districts.

During an interview after the meeting, Pryor said that because districts may no longer receive funding for students when they leave to attend a charter, at most, districts may not be getting as much of an increase in funding as they, perhaps, would have if the students had stayed.

As the board pushes forward with increasing the number of students attending charter schools — and with 9 percent of students in New Haven and Bridgeport already attending charters before these new charters even open their doors — education officials have yet to determine how many more charter schools the state needs.

“To be determined,” Pryor said when asked how many more charters he would like to see. “Public charters are part of the solution — emphasis on [the word] part.”

Connecticut state budget

From Connecticut state budget

“I don’t know, I don’t have a target,” said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, in an interview. He said until every child is attending a quality school,  the work of improving schools remains, which includes charter schools.

“We have a way to go to hit that point,” he said.

Connecticut remains well below the national average in the percentage of public school students attending charters, according to the most recent report by the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s not for lack of demand: According to the 2013 annual report by the Connecticut Department of Education, demand for a seat in a charter school “remains strong.”

“In spite of steadily growing enrollments, there continue to be waiting lists for public charter schools.”

Next year 8,229 students in Connecticut are expected to attend charter schools — 1.5  percent of public school students in the state.

Want to learn about the new charter schools? Their applications are below.

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