Achievement First Hartford Academy is pictured. The school is one of 21 charter schools in Connecticut. Gabby DeBenedictis / CT Mirror

Original reporting by Jessika Harkay. Written by Jessika Harkay and Gabby DeBenedictis.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of CT Mirror’s Spanish-language news coverage developed in partnership with Identidad Latina Multimedia.

Lea este artículo en español.

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are public schools that are funded by the state but are not part of the traditional school district system. They’re not governed by their local board of education; rather, they’re run by an outside nonprofit — typically a management group that operates several charter schools.

The schools operate under a “charter,” which is essentially a contract made with the state or a local school district. That charter outlines the school’s operations, including its curriculum, student and staff numbers, measures of student success, and any special programming.

Charter schools often serve underrepresented students. In Connecticut, 94% of the more than 11,000 people enrolled in charter schools are students of color, according to the Connecticut Charter Schools Association.

Charter schools are subject to all federal and state laws governing public schools.

How is a charter school’s curriculum different?

Because a charter school operates independently of its school district, its curriculum and schedule can have more flexibility.

Similar to tech schools or magnet schools, charter schools tend to have a specific academic focus — like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the arts, or language immersion.

Some emphasize parental involvement, and some say they offer “holistic education” — teaching social-emotional intelligence, in addition to academics.

For example, Brass City Charter School in Waterbury has partnered with the Connecticut Science Center for its science program and has collaborated with Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to teach emotion regulation.

Additionally, charter schools tend to have smaller class sizes than typical public schools, and some have longer school days and years.

How many charter schools are in Connecticut?

Connecticut has 21 charter schools. Six are in Bridgeport, another six are in New Haven, and two are in Hartford. Manchester, Norwalk, Norwich, New London, Stamford, Waterbury and Winsted have one each.

All of them are “state” charter schools, except Elm City Montessori School in New Haven, which is a “local” charter school.

A complete list of Connecticut’s charter schools can be found here.

What is the difference between a state and local charter school?

A state charter school is a new school that is approved by the state board of education, funded by the state, and operates independently of any local or regional boards of education.

A local charter school is an existing school that was converted from a public school into a charter school. Local charter schools receive approval from both their local or regional board of education and the state board of education.

What is the charter school approval process in Connecticut?

Charter school proposals 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 more than a year to be considered.

Prior to 2015, a charter school could begin recruiting students and building its campus as soon as it received approval from the state Board of Education.

That year, however, a bill changed the process into a two-tier approval system, where the state Board of Education grants “initial” approval and then funding is approved by lawmakers. The state Department of Education said the change helped make the charter process more transparent.

Connecticut is the only state in the country that requires legislative approval in the creation of charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

No charter school has opened in Connecticut since the change was made in 2015.

Do charter schools have admissions requirements?

No, though enrollment can be limited to particular grade levels. Charter schools can choose whether to limit enrollment to students who live in a particular geographic area.

If there are more interested families than there are slots available, admission is granted through a lottery system.

Charter schools do not have an admissions fee.

How are charter schools funded?

The state of Connecticut funds most operational costs for state charter schools. They do receive some federal dollars as well, but most additional funding is the charter school’s responsibility to raise or find.

Why do supporters like charter schools?

Charter school advocates argue that the schools offer parents and students a choice and have unique characteristics that allow them to run independently from their home districts, providing more room for innovation in their curriculum and teaching styles.

What do opponents take issue with?

Opponents counter that charter schools, in a sense, privatize public education as they strip away investments into local districts and offer only a select number of students the opportunity to potentially thrive in another school while others, who may be stuck on a wait list, are left without resources.

Are any new charter schools opening in Connecticut soon?

Two charter schools, one in Danbury and one in Norwalk, have been approved by the state Board of Education but have been awaiting funding for over five years.

Another two, in Middletown and New Haven, received initial approval from the state Board of Education in March.

Finding answers to big questions in Connecticut. CT Mirror Explains is an ongoing effort to distill our wide-ranging reporting on Connecticut topics into a "what you need to know" format.