A charter school planned for Danbury and approved by state education officials in 2018 could remain unfunded for another year after it was left out of lawmakers’ proposed state budget, unveiled earlier this week.
The spending plan, which is still being negotiated, did include funding for the three other charter schools already approved by the state Board of Education, prompting Rep. Rachel Chaleski, R-Danbury, to request a “surprise” amendment to add the missing school.
Her request was followed by more than two and a half hours of debate at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Appropriations Committee before the amendment failed.
“This is not a funding issue. It is a choice issue. It is an equity issue,” Chaleski said, adding that the budget had room to include the charter school, which the committee’s co-chair, Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague, confirmed at the meeting.
“Our student enrollment grows every year by about the same number of students that this charter would phase in. … And to be clear, the Danbury delegation does include support for this charter, not just myself,” Chaleski continued.
The Danbury delegation has been split on the issue of charter schools, with members like Democratic Sen. Julie Kushner expressing opposition in the past.
Chaleski’s proposed amendment first triggered a 90-minute recess, followed by an hour of testimony from two dozen state representatives who overwhelmingly voiced their support for the school but were split between voting in favor of the amendment or voting with their party.
“I’m a charter school supporter, always have been, and always will be,” Osten said when the meeting resumed. “To me, this is more about process than it is policy, because I will continue to support the Danbury charter school, and any other charter school there is, because I think it gives parents choice. That does not necessarily mean that I’m going to support this amendment for the following reasons — that we don’t support Republican amendments when they come up. We go forward with the underlying budget, and the underlying budget is a $50 million dollar process. It’s a $50 billion project, which I have.”
The amendment ultimately failed 33-20.
Some Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Antonio Felipe and Rep. Robyn Porter, crossed party lines by voting in favor of the amendment, arguing that the issue of choice was bigger than voting in line with their respective party.
“It feels like somebody’s taking all of the air out of the room, or trying to make the folks — that come from Danbury, and are clamoring and asking us to do the right thing — to make them submit. [It seems] we’re trying to make them weaken and not come back year after year after year. But, still they come back,” Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said. “[In the past] I have done the thing that was easy to do. [I’ve] done the thing that is going with what I think the consensus or the majority is doing. However, I can’t continue to do that. … I’m going to support this amendment, and I’m going to do it because I’m tired of sitting down when I should be standing up.”
Other Democratic legislators didn’t feel the same way, as they called the amendment a “surprise,” adding that it disrespected weeks of negotiations among lawmakers.
“There are parts of this budget that everyone sitting up here does not like, but many of us are going to vote in support of this budget, and part of that is the addition of charter school funding. I do not necessarily support the new funding in this budget, because we have not fixed the problem in front of us [with our traditional public schools],” said Education Committee co-chair Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford. “Until we fix what we currently have, I cannot in good faith stand up and support … a surprise amendment … because that was not something that was negotiated, or discussed, prior to the meeting that we are all sitting out here at.”
However, Chaleski argued that she proposed the change only after realizing the school, which she said was initially included in a draft of the budget “last week,” was removed “last second.”
“We received a budget … [Tuesday] morning, which was the first time I had seen the actual budget that the chairs were putting forward,” Chaleski told the CT Mirror. “It was absolutely a surprise to me [that funding for the Danbury charter school was removed], and hence the surprise amendment. … It was a day full of surprises. … [But,] to bring this to that magnitude of light was necessary.”
When asked why the charter school was removed from the budget, Chaleski claimed a member of the Danbury delegation went to the Appropriations Committee chairs and said “the entire delegation was against” the school.
“That was the reason why it was pulled. So [that’s why I made] my comment clarifying that there is support within the Danbury delegation,” Chaleski said. “The community has come out time and time again to relay their support, as well as our city leaders, who are also our elected officials. Our mayor, the majority on the City Council, the majority on [the local] board of education. The community wants it, and there is definitely a need for it.”
Osten and Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who serve as the committee’s chairs, did not respond to requests for comment about whether the charter school was in any version of the budget, and if it was, why it was removed.
Kushner, who’s been a vocal opponent of the charter school for several years, said at Tuesday’s meeting that she “urged” her fellow lawmakers to vote against the amendment and the school.
“I raised three children in this community, and they all went to Danbury public schools. And I feel very strongly about education. It is not easy to be in the position I have been in for the last four years, opposing a school, but I do it because I don’t think it’s the best educational move for Danbury,” Kushner said. “I hope [my colleagues] trust in me and the work that I have done to fight for the people of Danbury, and especially for the children.”
Kushner told the CT Mirror she sat on three subcommittees this session, and that she’s “unsure” what budget, if any, Chaleski had seen that had allotted funds for a charter in Danbury.
Kushner also served as the co-chair of a general government subcommittee, where she said she did make recommendations in opposition to the school to the committee’s chairs during the budget process.
“Most of the Danbury delegation — with the exception of Rachel — we felt strongly that there are better ways to deal with our educational needs in Danbury, and so we have taken that position with our leadership,” Kushner said. “I look forward to working on other ways that we can enhance the learning experience for our students in Danbury. We had a disagreement. Rachel felt strongly that it would be better to have the charter school, but the delegation, in the main, did not support that. So, I think [the appropriations] leadership listened to us and as a result, the budget did not have [the school] in it and her amendment failed.”
Some of Danbury’s local delegation, including Democratic Rep. Farley Santos, echoed Kushner’s opposition to the school.
“I knocked on over 3,500 doors, and my team knocked on nearly 5,500 doors all together,” Santos, who’s in his first term, told the CT Mirror about his time campaigning before his election. “Not one person brought up the charter school in the sense of saying, ‘Hey, we need our legislators to support this.’ If anything, they told you anytime it would come up, ‘We need to focus on our traditional public schools.’”
Others, like Chaleski’s fellow Republican Danbury representative Patrick Callahan, said the charter school “has been passed over too many times.”
“It’s time to support them,” Callahan said.
Despite the amendment not passing, the Danbury Charter School Planning Committee said they “don’t regard [Tuesday’s] developments as a failure.”
“Now, [the school] is in a place where it’s in front of other Democrats for the first time,” said John Taylor, CEO of Elevate Charter Schools, the organization that would manage the Danbury charter school if its funding is approved. “I know it was out of form, but at the end of the day, [the amendment] shined a light on what had been taking place behind closed doors, and it put it out there in a public forum — to have that conversation — and to really find out what people felt about this. It’s clear that a number of people on both sides of the aisle see this as being extremely unfair.”
No charter school has opened in the state since 2015, when lawmakers changed the approval process from one step to two.
Previously, charter schools only needed an approval from the state Board of Education before they received permission to begin recruiting students, building their campuses and receiving money from the state.
The change eight years ago made it so the state school board now grants an “initial” approval, but the funding needs to be approved by lawmakers.
Two charter schools, Danbury’s and another in Norwalk, have been waiting for over five years for funding. Another two, in Middletown and New Haven, received their first approval from the state Board of Education in March.
As currently written in the legislative budget proposal, which passed out of the Appropriations Committee Tuesday evening with a 40-12 vote, the Norwalk, Middletown and New Haven charter schools would receive $200,000 each next year, then in 2025, Norwalk would receive $2.1 million, Middletown $4.75 million and New Haven $937,500.
There’s still a chance for the Danbury charter school to be written into the budget, as lawmakers expect there to be a few more weeks of negotiations before a final version is agreed upon.
“I can only hope that [the lawmakers who said they favored the charter school] stay true to their word,” Chaleski said.
Even if the school isn’t approved in this budget, advocates said they’re prepared to keep pushing for it.
“We’re gonna fight it to the end,” Taylor said. “And if it doesn’t happen this year, you’ll see us again next year. It will eventually happen. We won’t go away.”
Senate Bill 1096, which would reverse the charter school approval change in 2015 and establish a state grant account to fund new charter schools, was approved by the Education Committee earlier this session. The bill now sits in front of the Appropriations Committee and is expected to be voted on Friday morning.