State: Complaints about charter schools to be handled differently

The state education commissioner says she does not have the same obligations in investigating complaints from parents, students and teachers against charter schools that she does for regular public schools.

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell

CTMirror.org

“Charter schools are accountable to the state board of education,” said Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell

The state says charter schools are not subject to what is known as a 10-4b process, which lays out mandatory steps the state must follow to respond to complaints. The state said it has more discretion about whether and how to proceed with complaints against charter schools than it does for schools operated by local school boards.

“Unlike local boards of education, which are accountable to the residents of their towns through the electoral process and section 10-4b, the governing councils of charter schools are accountable to the [State Board of Education] and the commissioner pursuant to the statutes regulating charter schools,” Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell responded in April to a complaint filed by the local teachers’ union in Bridgeport. “This complaint must be dismissed.”

The issue is a symptom of a larger controversy over whether charter schools should be given the increased latitude they have to run their schools while still receiving millions of dollars in state education aid.

This is believed to be the first time the state department has determined that complaints against charter schools must be handled differently.

“I think that it’s unfortunate the commissioner has misread the statute,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, co-chair of the legislature’s Education Committee. “I have no idea how the department came to misconstrue this very clear statute.”

“You have to believe that charter schools are not public schools to believe they are not subject to 10-4b,” the Democrat from West Hartford said, promising to raise the issue in the legislature.

The department made clear that the public can still complain and that the department can assess penalties that include putting a school on probation or revoking its charter to operate. It said, however, the department was not required to investigate or hold a hearing on a complaint.

“When a parent has a complaint, the department has a number of avenues they can follow for compliance monitoring to investigate the complaint,” said Abbe Smith, spokeswoman for the department. “There is a different process… That is what the department is here for: to make sure they are in compliance.”

Two charter schools have been put on probation over the last 10 years – one after The Hartford Courant disclosed a series of questionable financial and hiring practices and another after data was made public that showed high numbers of teachers were not properly certified to teach and student suspension rates were among the highest in the state.

No charter school has had its contract with the state to operate revoked in recent years. A total of 9,201 students attend the state’s 23 charter schools, which receive about $100 million each year from the state.

Jeremiah Grace, the state director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, said charter schools are already accountable and dismissed concerns posed by the teachers’ union.

“Charter schools are the most accountable public schools in Connecticut. The state already does an good job of listening to and following up on any concerns, at any time of year, the public may raise about a charter. We already have a process that works,” he said. “Every one of our schools is subject to rigorous academic, legal, and financial scrutiny as part of their annual reviews and charter renewals. As part of the review process, the state consistently incorporates information gathered as a result of any public complaints into formal evaluations, and has at times acted quickly upon that information to put schools on probation or require an improvement plan.

“The State Department and Commissioner are doing right in their responsibility to oversee public charter schools and deserve to continue doing their jobs without the hindrance of this or any future ploys by the teachers’ union.”

In the wake of the scandals that exposed shortcomings in some charter schools, legislators changed the law to require more public transparency, stricter anti-nepotism rules and background checks for certain employees.

The complaint that was dismissed was filed as a 10-4b complaint by the Bridgeport Education Association, which said that 50 percent of the teachers at Achievement First Bridgeport Academy, a charter school, are not properly certified to teach. State law allows the commissioner to waive certification requirements for up to 30 percent of a charter school’s instructional staff.

Data released in February by the state’s largest teachers union, showed that more than 30 percent of teachers were uncertified in one-quarter of the state-funded charter schools for the second consecutive year.

“Such statistics are unacceptable and clearly indicate that you as a board are failing to fulfill your duties in implementing the educational interests of the state,” Robert Traber, the leader of the Bridgeport union, wrote to Achievement First Bridgeport in January, requesting that it remedy the problem.

Peter Cymrot, senior counsel and director of authorizer relations for Achievement First, the management organization that operates several charters throughout Connecticut, said they are working on it.

“We are working with the state department of education on this and we continue to do so,” he said during an interview. “They are certainly involved in our schools in any compliance issues. We are regularly and constantly subject to the oversight of our authorizer.”

But after the issue remained unresolved, Traber filed the complaint with the state months later, which in April rejected his request to investigate.

One month later, the State Board voted to increase enrollment at Achievement First Bridgeport by 27 students next school year.

“Regarding the Bridgeport complaint, we are continuing to work with Bridgeport and any other charter schools facing certification challenges to help them come into compliance. The complaint will also be considered through the charter renewal process, which is the formal process for reviewing charter compliance,” said the education department spokeswoman.

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