A bill that would remove the legislature from the process of approving charter schools in Connecticut, which advocates say will allow these institutions to open more quickly, was approved by the Education Committee on Friday despite a Thursday evening email from two teacher’s unions that several lawmakers viewed as a “threat.”
The bill would reverse a 2015 law that requires approval from the state Board of Education and the legislature before a charter school can open.
Before voting, several lawmakers made reference to the email to committee members, in which the Connecticut Education Association and AFT CT expressed their opposition to the legislation.
“This is one of the bills CEA will be scoring as part of our 2023-24 legislative report card,” the email read in its opening sentences.
According to AFT CT‘s website, the union represents approximately 30,000 teachers and school staff. CEA represents over 43,000 teachers, school support staff and higher education faculty throughout Connecticut.
“I’ll just simply say, whether or not you agree or disagree, that this is your decision to remain today, and hopefully that is not swayed or influenced by any sort of attempt at veiled threats of whether or not this vote is going to be counted as any sort of way, with any sort of organizations, that may or may not have been appropriately addressed to the committee in such a manner,” said Committee Co-chair Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, before the vote.
The email highlighted several reasons for the unions’ opposition to Senate Bill 1096, including that the current process “provides necessary checks and balances between administrative and legislative branches.”
“This bill would be an abdication of legislative control over tens of millions of dollars for public education, setting a bad precedent for public school funding in Connecticut,” the email said.
Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, who is also a co-chair on the committee, said in 19 years of serving as a state legislator, he had never received an email like that.
“You all read the letter, and they’re going to take score of how you all vote on this one piece of legislation,” McCrory said. “That letter that came from CEA and AFT was very, very — I don’t even want to use the word — and unfortunately, that has placed a bull’s-eye on each and every single one of our backs.”
For nearly 20 years, Connecticut charter schools only needed approval from the state Board of Education before being built and funded. Charter school proposals have to undergo an extensive process before approval, including an analysis of the school’s curriculum, model and community need. There also must be public hearings to determine if there’s a demand and local support from constituents. Applications often take over a year to be considered.
Legislation in 2015 instituted a two-tier approval system, where the state Board of Education grants initial approval, but lawmakers grant the school’s funding.
Since the change, no charter school has been built in the state, although two — based in Danbury and Norwalk — received state Board of Education approval in 2018 but have been waiting in limbo for funding ever since.
Earlier this month, the state Board of Education also approved two more charter schools — one in Middletown and another in New Haven.
“I’m supporting this bill today, not that it solves for the travesty that has been Danbury struggle, but because no community should ever have to go through what we’ve been through,” Rep. Rachel Chaleski, R-Danbury, said. “This is about choice … and in Danbury, we have the largest high school in the state, and while it’s a phenomenal school … not everyone can thrive at such an environment and … if we could help a small percentage of students get what they need, why wouldn’t we help them?”
Similar to Chaleski, many lawmakers voiced their experiences with charter schools, including emotional testimony from McCrory, who recalled his time as a teacher in Hartford and how parents in the late 1990s were begging for other educational options beyond traditional public schools.
Residents of color across the state continue to demand more school choices, McCrory said.
“These communities … who are underserved, marginalized, underrepresented and under-resourced … these [communities are] largely Black and brown children and families, and they’re poor, and they want another option,” McCrory said. “It’s time for us in this state to give our parents a choice and give these children a chance.”
The vote on SB 1096 split party lines but ultimately passed.
At the committee meeting, legislators also voted on another 18 bills, including House Bill 5003, which would accelerate ECS funding to schools across the state. HB 5003 passed unanimously.