Yvette Highsmith Francis, who is one of the founding members of the Capital Prep Middletown Charter School, speaking at a press conference on June 5 in response to the school being left out of the final state budget. Jessika Harkay / CT Mirror

A proposed charter school in Middletown will join Danbury in its wait to be funded.

Capital Preparatory Middletown Charter School is the second charter school to be left out of the final budget this session, despite receiving initial approval in an earlier version of the budget signed off by the Appropriations Committee in April.

Both the statewide NAACP and its Middlesex County chapter called the decision a “racist,” “back-door” and “11th hour” effort to limit educational options for Black and brown children and their families.

“Despite doing everything possible, the right way, we had meetings with legislators who could never give us a ‘why’ [the school isn’t being funded],” said Anita Ford Saunders, the president of the Middlesex County NAACP, who later added that the school was blocked by Sen. Matt Lesser and Sen. Jan Hochadel, two lawmakers who represent Middletown.

“Sometimes you really have to think it’s not really about the school, it’s about Black and brown people having an opportunity — a choice,” Ford Saunders said, referring to how about 94% of children in the state’s 21 charter schools are students of color.

But lawmakers have also been hearing from those who don’t think a charter school is the answer to solving issues in the Middletown school district.

In a letter dated April 21, the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition urged lawmakers to reconsider funding the charter school.

“While we understand, agree, and empathize with the reasons people of color would want to remove their children from our current school systems, the MRJC firmly believes that the answer is to continue to put pressure on these systems to demand they educate and treat our children with the respect they deserve,” the letter read. “We know that our current educational systems are racist and that they are not treating families of color with the dignity they deserve. It’s understandable that folks would want to leave. But with respect to the needs of every child of color in Middletown, these current systems are all many of us will continue to have access to, regardless of Capital Prep Middletown. We need to be demanding more from our public schools! Our communities need funding for anti-racist teaching, hiring, and curriculum development. Capital Prep Middletown will not eradicate the issues of racism for all, or even most, of our children of color in Middletown.”

Lesser and Hochadel did not respond to requests for comment.

The proposed charter school in Middletown, which would have eventually served more than 900 K-12 students, was approved by the state Board of Education after hours of debate in March. Parents and community members in attendance, mostly people of color, overwhelmingly favored the school, with some describing instances where their children were called racial slurs at their current schools or how the traditional public school environment doesn’t work for them. 

“Our Black and brown students and families are being underserved… Our students are not valued, validated nor viewed the same. Our students are not disciplined the same. Our students are not acknowledged the same. Our students are not encouraged the same,” said Rev. Andrea Gaskins at the March meeting. “Opportunities that may be afforded to our children are not disclosed nor promoted the same. For decades, our children have not been provided with the same direction and promise in securing higher education. Our children are not even spoken to the same. They are and have been the focus of micro-aggressive behaviors before the term was even coined. This is not an environment conducive to the cultivation of equity nor excellence.”

Although the Middletown school scored the highest out of seven charter school applications that were being considered this year, the Department of Education had recommended the state board defer its decision after receiving an influx of letters in opposition to the school the night before the meeting where a decision was expected. The board ended up overruling the department’s recommendation and granted the school its initial approval.

[RELATED: What to know about charter schools in CT]

Middletown’s charter school became one of four in the pipeline for funding. Earlier this year, Danbury’s proposed charter school was cut out of the budget. This left Middletown, a school proposed in Norwalk and another in New Haven one step closer to opening. In the Appropriations Committee version of the budget, the three schools were allotted $200,000 next year, then Norwalk would be given $2.1 million, Middletown $4.75 million and New Haven $937,500 in 2025.

[RELATED: Danbury charter school left out of CT budget proposal]

The final and approved state budget instead increased funding for charter schools by $600,000 next year, with an additional $3 million in 2025 for the new charter schools in New Haven and Norwalk, according to an analysis by the School State Finance Project.

“[State legislators] changed the game midstream and in the 11th hour. Black people are familiar with this. This has happened to us since we stepped foot on the soil of America,” said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP and national board member representing from Delaware to Maine. “The question is — is this a fair process? Did the community of Middletown go through the process and do everything correctly? And if they did everything correctly, why are they doing this to us? Is it discriminatory? Is it racist? … Because it sure smells like it. It sure looks like it. And if it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, it’s a duck. And if it looks like racism and it smells like racism, and it looks like discrimination, and smells like discrimination, it’s probably discrimination.”

About 54% of students enrolled in the Middletown school district do not identify as white. Over 36% of Middletown students qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to state data. 

Steve Perry, the founder of Capital Preparatory Schools and a Middletown native, remembers being a student in the district. He said he grew up in remedial classes and didn’t know how to apply himself better because he never saw Black children like himself enrolled in or encouraged to pursue higher level classes.

“Growing up I was under the impression that Black people and poor people were one of the same,” Perry said. “I thought that’s just the way it was.”

He added that the only reason he began taking advanced classes in high school, and later went to college, was because of his involvement with an outside organization that provided free lunches throughout the summer and chose his school schedule.

“Fast forward to figuring everything out, later with a full scholarship to an Ivy League graduate school and on and on and on, I started to see these people aren’t smarter than I am, they just learned a different language than I did,” Perry said, adding that some educational systems are set up in ways that discourage students of color.

“This is ingrained and systemic where year on year, generation on generation, people believe [less] is what they’re supposed to have. … That there’s nothing more for us,” Perry said.

Perry argues a school like Capital Preparatory instead helps guide and prepare students of color to become more than the circumstances they may have been raised in. In Hartford, 100% of Capital Prep students are accepted into higher education institutions, and they’re given an opportunity to earn up to 30 college credits through a partnership with Capital Community College, according to the Hartford Public Schools website. He hopes Middletown students can have a similar opportunity.

“We’ve designed a school that understands that our children are extremely far behind academically,” Perry said. “We provide academic [and] socio-emotional support that’s embedded in the program. It’s part of what we do. It’s always been part of that.”

The push for the school is also supported by legislators like Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, who “implored” the charter school advocates to “keep fighting.”

Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, speaking at a press conference held by the NAACP on June 5 in response to a charter school in Middletown being left out of the state budget. Jessika Harkay / CT Mirror

“This is your fight. This is your civic fight. This is your civil rights fight. You are carrying the time of those that came before you,” McCrory said. “Push this party — this Democratic Party — force them to have a conversation. Let’s have this conversation about what education is going to look like in the state of Connecticut… You have to keep fighting for your children. No one else is going to do it. And if you wait for us to do it, it’s not going to happen. I implore you to keep doing what you’re doing. Keep putting the pressure on. Make the politics work for you.” 

Earlier this session, McCrory proposed Senate Bill 1096, which would not only make it easier for charter schools to open, but also start a new grant account to fund new charters. The bill had passed out of the education and appropriation committees, but was never taken up by the Senate or House. 

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.