Is state headed for another charter school showdown?

The last time the State Board of Education approved the education plan for a batch of charter schools vying to open in Connecticut, the schools quickly started enrolling students.

CT Mirror File Photo / The CT Mirror

State Board of Education members and the Education Commissioner listen to testimony the last time more charter schools’ educational plans were approved.

“Enroll now! Accepting applications for grades 6-12,” a billboard facing the highway in Bridgeport read during Spring 2015.

But there was a problem: the state had not committed to spending the $4.6 million needed to open the new schools in the upcoming year.

Lawmakers eventually caved and provided the funding amid pressure from the families who had already won a coveted seat in one of the new charter schools – but only after updating state law to clarify that the state education board’s approval of an educational plan does not automatically mean the school will open.

That decision rests with the governor and the legislature providing the funding.

On Wednesday, the state board will consider approving two more charter school plans – including one from the same operator who backed the state into a corner to fund Stamford Charter School for Excellence in 2015.

This time, Northeast Charter Schools Network says the two new charters, if approved by the state education board, will not conduct a lottery or offer enrollment to any children before state funding is approved.

“The applicants are committed to following the approval process step-by-step. If they are approved by the board, they will move on to the next phase in the process,” said Yam Menon, Connecticut State Director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network. “These two new schools would be wonderful additions to the communities of Danbury and Norwalk.”

Their plans propose opening and enrolling 110 children at the Danbury Prospect Charter School and 168 children at Norwalk Charter School for Excellence next school year, which would cost the state $3.1 million. When the schools reach full capacity in five years, 942 additional students would be attending charters, which will cost an additional $10.6 million in state funding.

Chairman of the State Board of Education Allan Taylor said during an interview that the changes in state law clarified already existing state law.

“Seems to me it’s the same situation as it has always been,” Taylor, an attorney, said of the process for charters to open in Connecticut. “We can say pretty clearly what we are doing is an initial approval … But whether parents who want to send their kids to charter school get that message that there is another step to go, I don’t know.”

Regardless if these new schools open, enrollment in the state’s existing network of charter schools is already set to increase as they reach capacity. Charters typically open with a couple of grades at a time. This means next year, 527 additional seats will be offered if already existing schools are allowed to increase enrollment as their plans are designed – a cost of nearly $6 million to the state.

If these educational plans are approved by the education board Wednesday, the decision to move them forward will rest with the next governor.

Bob Stefanowski, the Republican nominee, is non-committal.

“If elected, Mr. Stefanowski will carefully examine that proposal and make sure it’s in the best educational interests of the state and, if so, he will approve it,” Kendall Marr, Stefanowski’s spokesman, said during an interview. “There is certainly reason to believe that charters are having positive results, but he is also a product of the public schools.”

Ned Lamont, the Democratic nominee, is not supportive of opening more charters.

“I just worry about how we get them funded. I am trying to do no harm for our existing districts, our districts most in need. So let me be very careful before I promise funding to any new alternatives,” Lamont said during an interview. “I am focused on doing everything I can to raise [neighborhood schools] up.”

About Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline won two first prizes from the Education Writers Association for her work in 2012 – one in beat reporting for her overall education coverage, and the other in investigative reporting on a series of stories revealing questionable monetary and personnel actions taken by the Board of Regents for Higher Education. In 2016, she was a finalist in the EWA competition for single-topic coverage for her reporting on how schools are funded in Connecticut. Before coming to The Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for Southern Maryland Newspapers. She has also worked for Congressional Quarterly and the Toledo Free Press. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College. She and her husband, two sons and two dogs live in Hartford.

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