Over the past few years, Dacia Toll, co-CEO of the charter organization Achievement First, has been forced to economize by cutting teaching positions, curriculum budgets, field trips, after-school programs, and teacher coaching.
Now she is proposing an even more draconian measure — shutting down a school building and squeezing students from that school into another.
The culprit, Toll said, is the state’s method of funding public charter schools.
While charter schools get a primary grant of $11,250 per child from the state, many traditional public schools serving the same sorts of students, Toll says, receive thousands of dollars more through a combination of state and local funding.
“They are literally starving us,” Toll said. “We should be getting $15,000 or $16,000.”
The funding problem, says the head of the state’s charter school association, is threatening the existence of Connecticut’s 22 charter schools.
“Many of the schools are at risk of not being able to continue, whether that’s in a couple of years or a little bit more than that,” said Ruben Felipe, executive director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association. “Equity is the dream, but they say to me, ‘If we don’t get some kind of an increase, I just won’t be able to keep up with the cost of living’.”
“Many of the schools are at risk of not being able to continue, whether that’s in a couple of years or a little bit more than that.”
Executive Director, Connecticut Charter Schools Association
Felipe said that Connecticut’s approach to funding charters — allocating the money in a line item rather than through the state’s Education Cost Sharing grant program — has made it particularly difficult for these schools.
That funding structure makes charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated, far more vulnerable to the ups and downs of the state budget, supporters say, leaving the schools with less financial certainty year-to-year, as well as leaving them with less funding.
In addition, charters are almost entirely reliant on state funds because unlike traditional public schools they do not receive local property tax revenue.
Traditional public schools are funded largely through the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula, which starts with a “foundation rate” of $11,525 per student. No local district receives that entire sum from the state, however, because the formula also takes into account the town’s ability to pay for its public schools through local property taxes. So, while many districts receive state ECS grants considerably less than the foundation amount, the balance — and more — is made up largely through property tax revenue.
The state formula also allots more money to districts with high percentages of low-income students or students learning English.
Charter proponents point out that the state grant for charters is $275 less than the ECS foundation rate. And they argue it’s not fair that charter schools are not eligible for additional funding based on demographics, even though about 70% of the 10,228 children who attended state charter schools in Connecticut last year are low-income and 88% are children of color, according the charter school association.
“So despite these kids being the kids with the highest amount of need, they are funded below what is essentially the minimum wage of public education funding in the state,” said Felipe.
Liz Cox, the director of the New Haven charter Common Ground High School, said funding from the state that doesn’t increase to reflect high need students has also created problems for her.
“I had to eliminate a position last year. My teachers didn’t get raises,” Cox said. “It definitely impacted technology and supplies.”
Connecticut is “not a very charter-friendly state compared to many states,” she said. “We haven’t really been able to grow in terms of the number of schools … You don’t receive the kind of support present in many states.”
Toll, who oversees schools in Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, said it is far more difficult to finance schools in Connecticut than it is in New York and Rhode Island.
In New York City, charters get to use school buildings for free and receive about $6,000 more per child in state and local funding than those in Connecticut. Rhode Island allocates about $3,600 more than Connecticut to its charter schools and lets them use state buildings for a nominal fee.
The financial outlook has been further strained for Achievement First because philanthropic funding has been on the decline.
Toll said most philanthropists are more focused on “innovation, growth, pilot ideas, temporary emergencies,” she said. “We are two decades into what has proven to be a successful reform effort … We’ve had wonderful supporters over many years, but there is some understandable fatigue. I think there was always an expectation that the state would eventually step up and honor its obligation to these students and communities.”
Super-sizing to save money
With money tight, Toll said, Achievement First has had to make staffing reductions every year for the last four years in all of its Connecticut schools. Last year, it consolidated two Hartford schools by shutting down Summit Middle School and moving it into Hartford Academy Middle School.
For a few years, the consolidated middle school will be “super-sized,” Toll said, but as Summit students graduate, the school will eventually serve 250 fewer middle school students in Hartford.
Now the charter organization is proposing to sell the building where Elm City College Preparatory Middle School is located and move those students into its Elm City College Preparatory Elementary School building next fall.
“We’ll crowd two schools into one,” Toll said. She said the savings — including the sale of the building and operational costs — is expected to be $750,000 a year for five years.
“And we’ll need to make painful cuts at all of our schools,”she said. “The facility move alone is a part of the solution. It’s not the whole solution.”
“We’ll crowd two schools into one. And we’ll need to make painful cuts at all of our schools .”
CEO, Achievement First charter network
She said that the charter organization will be reaching out to the school community to discuss the plan.”We are going to engage the community in what this means,” she said. “We will see if they agree with us that amongst a bunch of bad choices, this is the least bad choice.”
Unless serious concerns surface, the charter’s board is expected to vote on the proposal in December. If approved, it will go to the State Board of Education for consideration.
Toll also points to the success of Achievement First schools as reason for the state to increase its investment in them. More than double the percentage of students across Achievement First schools in Connecticut performed at grade level on the state’s standardized tests, compared to the host district students attending traditional, neighborhood schools, according to information provided by the charter organization.
Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer at the state Department of Education, said, however, that there is a wrinkle to these straight comparisons: the students choosing charters may be higher achieving from the outset than those attending neighborhood schools. For that reason, Gopalakrishnan said, the state also considers students’ growth or rate of improvement on standardized tests. For the past four years, the state has found that Hartford residents who attend charter schools show stronger growth than those attending the city’s neighborhood schools.
In 2017, Achievement First Amistad High School was ranked first among high schools in the state by U.S. News & World Report; this year Achievement First Hartford High School was ranked Number 3.
Achievement First schools are among “the highest performing schools for the students that Connecticut says it is most concerned about,” Toll said, “so why are those students not getting the same funding, or why are those students getting thousands of dollars less in funding than other students?”
It’s a question some lawmakers are also asking.
“They are absolutely right,” said Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford and co-chairman of legislature’s education committee, of the charters’ complaint. “[These students’] parents just opted to send them to a charter school and they get much less funding than the traditional kid who goes to the traditional public schools.”
He said that when charter schools first began to emerge, they were supposed to be a cheaper alternative, pledging to do more with less funding and get better results.
“Initially that was done,” McCrory said, “but that was 20 years ago and the cost of education has risen. The cost differential now is just too extreme.”
An “antiquated” funding system
Connecticut has historically had an ambivalent relationship with charters.
Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the state does not make it easy for the schools.
He said the state law’s funding mechanism is “backwards, antiquated. They passed the law in the mid-90s. There have been some revisions along the way, but they really haven’t modernized it. It makes it very difficult … to be able thrive. I think it’s a lot more difficult than it needs to be.”
For years, Connecticut has employed more than 10 different ways of funding public schools. The vast majority of schools are funded through the ECS grant, but charters, magnets, vocational-technical high schools, and vocational-agricultural high schools all have their own separate funding streams and, in some cases, more than one more formula. For instance, there are five different formulas for magnet schools.
Connecticut is one of only two states — the other being Hawaii — that has a separate line item for charters, Ziebarth said.
Michael Morton, spokesman for the Connecticut School Finance Project, said the state has multiple education funding formulas that “don’t take student needs into account.”
McCrory and Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford and a member of the education committee, are both supportive of a creating a single funding stream for all schools.
“At the end of the day, we should have one funding formula for all our public schools,” McCrory said. “That’s the reality and we don’t have that.”
When the legislature modified the ECS formula two years ago, ensuring that districts with students in need of greater support got more money, it didn’t finish the job, Currey said.
“Now we are working on finishing the job,” Currey said. “What that means is creating a fair funding-for-all model and basically it’s a unified funding stream.”
Like many in Connecticut, Currey said that he was not originally “a big fan of charters,” but was convinced by having conversations with charter leaders that “choice is good.”
“I think we’ve all come to a point where we’ve accepted charters are here to stay, magnets are here, so if we are all going to get our arrows pointed in the same direction about educating our children to the best of their ability, I think we should all be funding them equally and equitably,” he said. “So the intent would be to roll all schools of choice into the ECS formula and fund students who are physically sitting in those classroom in the same manner regardless of the type of school in which they are sitting.”
That’s not something that will happen this year, Currey said, but he hopes to see conversation continue over the next year and possibly propose legislation in 2021.
“This is going to require additional funding at the state level to be able to support something like this,” he said. “So that will be kind of the biggest hurdle that we’ll face.”
And it may be a very tough one. Fran Rabinowitz, the former interim superintendent in Bridgeport, noted that local schools districts cover the cost of transportation and special education for charter schools.
“I wouldn’t mind giving the charters more money, but let them take care of their own transportation and their own special education,” said Rabinowitz, who is now executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said “charter schools are in the same unfortunate situation” as traditional and other public schools in Connecticut.
“There’s not enough money to deliver the programs and meet the needs of all the students,” she said
Like McCrory, she recalled that when charters were introduced to the state, proponents claimed they could do better than public schools with less money.
“That was their pitch. Unfortunately, this is the current reality,” McCarthy said. “The first priority has to be to make sure we have the resources that we need for traditional public school programs serving the vast majority of our students.”