State law requires education leaders to “reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation” to advance the state’s interests, but an advocacy group reports that most of Connecticut’s charter schools are “hyper-segregated.”

A review of the demographics in various school choice programs by Connecticut Voices for Children provides a school-by-school rundown of which type of students attend charter, magnet and vocational-technical schools.

The results: The majority of charter schools in Connecticut are “hyper-segregated” and fail to enroll diverse populations based on race and ethnicity. (More than 90 percent of their students are minorities.)

These state-funded schools, which currently enroll nearly 7,100 students, also serve fewer students who speak limited English and have special education needs when compared with the schools in the towns in which they are located. Most magnet schools, which enroll about 30,000 students a year, are integrated by the state’s definition of the word. (At least 25 percent of students are white and no more than 75 percent are minority.) However, many magnet schools do not enroll as many special education and students with special education needs as the districts in which they are located.

“The report is very clear between what policy requires and what happens on the ground,” Voices Executive Director Ellen Shemitz told reporters this week when releasing the report.

State law empowers the education commissioner to place charter schools on probation in order to require that the schools implement corrective action if they fail to “achieve measurable progress in reducing racial, ethnic and economic isolation.” No charter schools are on probation, according to a spokeswoman for the State Department of Education.

The issue of who attends charter schools is not new. An analysis of the demographics in charter schools by The Connecticut Mirror in 2012 showed most charter schools serve fewer English Language Learners and students identified as needing special education services.

Since then, the Connecticut State Board of Education has approved opening six new charter schools (two in Bridgeport and one each in New Haven, Stamford, Waterbury and Windham). All charter schools articulate in their applications how they will reduce economic and racial isolation for their student populations, as required by state law. (Read the applications of the six new schools here.)

We “will actively enroll and retain high-need scholars from [the New Haven area] by applying the same successful intricate strategies used in … Jumoke Academy Schools to address and serve the same high-need student population that we expect will attend the Academy,” states the state-approved application for Booker T. Washington Academy, a charter school set to open in New Haven next year. It is operated by the same leader who runs Jumoke in Hartford.

The Voices report shows that fewer than 1 percent of Jumoke charter school students during the 2011-12 school year spoke limited English, as compared to 11 percent of students in the district where the school is located. Just 4 percent of Jumoke students were receiving special education services, as compared to 13 percent of students attending Hartford Public Schools. Every student at Jumoke is a member of a minority group, compared to 91 percent of students attending Hartford Public Schools.

Charter school leaders have explained that they have fewer students identified as needing special education services because students who may initially require special accommodations catch up with their peers once in the charter school and eventually no longer are identified as special education students.

A statement by the state chapter of the Northeast Charter Schools Network (NECSN) called the Voices report “puzzling” because charter schools are “Bringing educational opportunity to every child, particularly Connecticut’s growing Hispanic population” and are “Providing the kind of education that leads to college and career and reduces racial and economic isolation.”

“We’re not the source of educational inequality for children, but we are part of the solution. The facts speak for themselves – African-American and Latino children in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford are outperforming their peers in district schools,” said NECSN Connecticut State Director Jeremiah Grace.

While Voices says it’s not fair to compare schools that are serving fewer high-need students, the New Haven-based group says isolating minority students into charter schools is not the best practice.

“The long-term academic, career, and civic outcomes from integrated educational experiences can be profound for both white children and children of color,” Robert Cotto and Kenny Feder write in their report, citing national research. Cotto is also a member of the Hartford Public School Board.

“Mounting evidence shows that schools and neighborhoods extremely segregated by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status can have a negative impact on children and families’ long-term development, well-being, and access to services and opportunities,” they write.

The Connecticut Supreme Court seemed to agree when it ordered the state to eliminate the inequities caused by Hartford’s largely minority population.

“It is crucial for a democratic society to provide all of its schoolchildren with fair access to an unsegregated education,” Ellen A. Peters, then chief justice of the state’s High Court, wrote in the majority opinion in July 1996. “Every passing day denies these children their constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity. Every passing day shortchanges these children in their ability to learn to contribute to their own wellbeing.”

As a result of that landmark decision, state legislators changed state law so students would have the ability to enroll in integrated charter or interdistrict magnet schools through a blind lottery.

“Connecticut law … is clear that public school choice programs (with the exception of technical schools) have an obligation to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of students,” Voices reports.

Requests for an interview with an official from Achievement First, the largest network of charter schools in the state, went unanswered as of Tuesday morning. The schools run by Achievement First — located in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven — enroll between 96 percent and 99 percent black and Hispanic students, and some of their schools vary significantly from the district where they are located in the number of English Language Learning students enrolled.

A spokesman for Achievement First wrote in an email that the percent of students who speak limited English has increased since the 2011-12 school year, the year the report’s data comes from.

Voices recommends that the state require “clear and measureable” integration standards for these schools and launch an investigation into what barriers may be causing these schools to enroll a less-diverse student population.

The state’s charter network disapproves of this approach.

“Rather than try to impose a one-size-fits-all mandate on these public schools of choice, policymakers should be finding ways to help charters flourish and increase choices for parents as part of a comprehensive approach to giving every child a great public school,” Grace said.

In a prepared statement, a spokeswoman for the state’s education commissioner said, “The state is committed to making sure that all children have access to a quality education, regardless of their zip code… Public schools of choice have created high-quality options for thousands of Connecticut families. These choices can and do take multiple forms. Such schools are part of the solution – and are just one part of our larger, comprehensive education reform efforts.”

Interactive graphic is by data editor Alvin Chang.

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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