Op-Ed: Connecticut charter schools — a good idea gone awry

When confronted with the fact that the unwarranted expansion of charter schools is diverting sorely needs funds away from neighborhood public schools, Connecticut voters are clear in their response:  cease and desist.

The public does not want an erosion of resources to dilute the education of children across Connecticut. In a new survey, three in four say that public schools are doing an excellent or good job, and eight in 10 want to ensure that their neighborhood public schools do not lose funding when new charter schools open in their area.

But that is precisely what is happening.

Op-ed submit bugA recent estimate of the local financial impact of charter schools shows a $2.9 million cost to the Bridgeport Public Schools, and a similar analysis in Stamford shows nearly $700,000 in costs to the local board of education from the addition of one state charter school.

Back in 1996, developing charter schools was a good idea. The Connecticut Education Association (CEA), in fact, helped launch the state’s first charter school, and today represents the dedicated, first-rate teachers in three charter schools. Envisioned as educational laboratories, limited in number and scale, charter schools were originally designed to develop and share new best practices with the public school sector.

Good intentions have gone awry. An early, reasonable approach has morphed into an unresponsive parallel system of education that is increasingly siphoning funds from neighborhood public schools.

When asked about charter schools, Connecticut voters have no appetite for lower standards, less oversight, or an absence of local control and decision-making connected with charters. Nearly nine in 10 voters want all charter school teachers to meet the same standards and attain state licensing and certification as teachers in neighborhood public schools. That is not happening now.

Voters want to require charter schools to serve high-need students, such as special education students, at the same level as neighborhood public schools. That’s not happening either, and more than three in four voters say it should.

The vast majority of voters support requiring that before any new charter school is approved, an analysis must be conducted on the impact the school will have on neighborhood public schools. And nearly three quarters of voters support proposals requiring a charter school approved by the state to also be approved by their local board of education before it can open.

The public’s strong desire to tame charter school management corporations is sensible. There is no legitimate reason for Connecticut policymakers to continue to write charter school management companies a blank check. It is a matter of dollars and sense.

There is a proposal to commit a disproportionately large amount of new tax dollars to charter schools. This increased commitment comes at the expense of the 119 municipalities continually receiving far less school funding than is owed to them by the state through the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant, the mechanism for local districts to receive state funds.

In years past, there was a formula developed for the equitable distribution of funds across all the state’s school districts. But that formula has been ignored, to the detriment not only of towns and their taxpayers, but their students. And it is getting worse.

More than unfair and unfortunate, this inequity is destabilizing the foundation of our neighborhood public schools. The state currently allocates more than $100 million to charter school management companies for annual operating expenses, plus tens of millions of dollars for construction and technology. Where public funding goes, public accountability must follow.

A strong majority of voters believe state officials should conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances to detect fraud, waste, or abuse of public funds, and eight in 10 agree charter schools should reveal how they spend taxpayer money.

The public interest couldn’t be more clear or compelling. Our state legislators need to bring full funding to a formula that for too long has circumvented and shortchanged towns and students, and replace the overabundance of charter school funding with meaningful, effective oversight.

Sheila Cohen is president of the Connecticut Education Association.

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