Not so fast: Key lawmaker upset with approval of more charter schools

"I am sort of outraged that they approved additional charters," Sen. Beth Bye said.

CTMirror.org (file photo_

“I am sort of outraged that they approved additional charters,” Sen. Beth Bye said.

The co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s powerful budget-writing committee is upset that the State Board of Education has approved opening more charter schools than the state budget pays for.

“I am sort of outraged that they approved additional charters. Did they also vote on a resolution to fully fund our public schools? No, I don’t think so,” Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said during an interview Thursday morning.

The current two-year state budget provides money for four new charter schools to open before July 2015. Those schools, in Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury and Windham, will collectively enroll 1,535 students once they reach capacity.

The state gives charters $11,000 for each student they enroll.

But the state board wants more charter schools, and approved plans to open two more — in Stamford and Bridgeport — in the 2015-2016 school year. The chairman of the State Board of Education said there’s nothing unusual about how these two schools were approved, and the board understands their opening is contingent on the state funding them.

“This is certainly not uncommon,” Allan B. Taylor said during an interview Thursday about the board’s approval of the schools.

Once they reach capacity, those two schools would enroll 1,157 more students, and, at $11,000 in tuition per student, cost the state an additional $12.7 million a year.

“Where do they think this money is going to come from?” asked Bye, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. She pointed to the state’s funding problems with operating existing traditional public schools and magnet schools.

“We have to live up to our current obligations first,” she said, concerned that the board is making promises to parents they won’t be able to keep.

The state education spending formula for traditional public schools — which directs state money to municipalities with higher concentrations of poverty, less ability to raise revenue locally for education and more high-needs students – is underfunded by $687.6 million this year, according to data compiled by the State Department of Education.

State lawmakers are also grappling with how and if they will pay for the nearly $20 million shortfall that interdistrict magnet schools need next school year if they are to continue providing the programs they offer this year.

Nor has the $30 million needed to continue phasing-in enrollment next year at 10 interdistrict magnet schools in Bridgeport, Hartford and Windham been included in either the governor’s or the Appropriations Committee’s recommended budget adjustments for next school year.

The state Board of Education’s Legislation and Policy Development Committee was told before the full board meeting Wednesday that to bring down magnet school costs, state lawmakers may allow fewer students to enroll in magnet schools and reduce the tuition the state provides these schools.

“I just don’t get it. You think these problems would have them a little more cautious of what they approve,” Bye said. “They are going out and promising these schools to families and districts. It’s not fair to them… The State Board of Education should look at what they have in the budget.”

Taylor, the state board chairman, said he agrees that the traditional public schools in the state need more money, but that charter schools must be part of the solution to improve education in Connecticut.

“We think this is all part of a program for improving schools for public school children,” he said.

After state school board member Charles A. Jaskiewicz III raised the idea of approving the additional two charters during Wednesday’s meeting, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor announced that his staff had already drawn up a five-page document that the board could vote on. He distributed the plan to board members, and then read from it, outlining details about the proposed schools, that could open for the 2015-2016 school year.

After the meeting, Pryor said he intends to lobby the legislature to fund the two new charter schools in fiscal 2016. Asked if he will seek funding for more than the two, Pryor said, “To be determined.”

The governor supports the state board’s decision to open more charter schools in fiscal 2016.

“The Governor supports the Board’s decision to expand successful models for Connecticut students, however, they are only one piece of his comprehensive plan to reform historically low-performing schools. The Governor’s primary commitment is ensuring that all public schools operate at the highest possible quality, which is why he has increased education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars,” a spokeswoman for the governor, Samaia Hernandez, wrote in an emailed statement.

Since fiscal 2011, municipalities have seen the amount of funding sent to them for education increase by $142 million a year. However, during that same time, the state picked up the bill for the $270 million decrease in federal funding that went away when federal stimulus dollars ran out in July 2011.

Anyone seeking new state funding in the next legislative session likely faces an uphill climb.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis says there’s a $1 billion deficit built into 2015-16 state finances, which involves the first new budget after November’s elections.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is seeking re-election, has said he’s confident that rising tax revenues tied to an improving economy will help close that gap. But, more importantly, Malloy also said he’s confident he can keep annual state spending growth in the next term below 3 percent – a ceiling leaving little room for new initiatives.

His Republican gubernatorial rivals have been even more fiscally restrained in their early campaign statements. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield have both said they want to reverse the $1.5 billion increase in state taxes Malloy signed in 2011. And Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, the Republican nominee in 2010 who is running again, has called for freezing most state spending and using the savings to reduce the state’s 6.35 percent sales tax.

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