Connecticut Charter Schools May Get a Boost

Published December 21, 2009

Charter schools are a hot commodity among Connecticut parents, and the state Board of Education has taken note. In December it started debate on a series of proposed reforms to give charter schools steadier funding streams and more freedom to expand their building capacity.

“Our charter schools are generally quite well received. Many of them are doing an outstandingly good job. We could use more of them,” said Board Chairman Allan Taylor.

The proposals, which the board approved January 6, include requiring school districts to contribute to the tuition expenses of charter schools within their jurisdictions, just as they would for standard district public schools.

Right now all charter school funds come from the state. This new requirement will ensure charter schools are as well-funded as standard district public schools; currently, they are allocated less, on average.

Less Red Tape

The proposal coincides with a bill to raise overall state spending on schools to $10,000 per pupil, up from $9,300 per pupil. If the bill is enacted, Connecticut charter schools will get a total of $50 million in funds per year.

A third proposal suggests removing the cap on charter-school growth. Currently a charter school is not allowed to grow beyond 300 students unless it has first secured a waiver from the state. Better funding would give charter schools the means to take in more students, eliminating the need to seek permission from the state beforehand.

“With the existing funding structure, basically every seat in a charter school has to be voted on by the state legislature every year,” said Taylor. “And unless the state puts money in the budget for growth in charter schools, they don’t have the money they need to operate.”

Equal Treatment

In addition to bigger budgets and newer buildings the pending bills deal with the principle of treating schools equitably. Taylor points out charter schools and district schools are all public schools, so there is no need to have laws on the books that put one at a disadvantage to the other.

“A substantial part of our board would like to see the system restructured so the money follows the child regardless of what school he or she goes to,” he said.

First, however, education reform supporters must clear the formidable obstacle of state budget concerns. With the recession still in effect, money is as tight in Connecticut as any other state.

“It will be difficult to change the system when we can’t lubricate the change process with extra money,” says Taylor.

Facing Hurdles

On the upside, the reforms will put Connecticut in the running for federal Race to the Top funds, which the Obama administration’s economic stimulus act is distributing to states whose school systems meet certain criteria, including not capping charter school growth. However, the entire Race to the Top coffer is $4.35 billion, and no one state can expect more than a few million at best. The funds might cover some of Connecticut’s charter-school expenses, but not all of them.

Public-school teachers unions claim the added expenses of charter schools tuitions will be too much for local communities to take on in the current lean times.

“We cannot expect to place the lion’s share of responsibility for charters on the shoulders of local taxpayers,” Mark Waxenberg, the Connecticut Education Association’s director of government relations, testified to the state board in December.

But there is a precedent in Hartford County Public Schools, which formed a partnership with the nonprofit Achievement First to open Achievement First Hartford Academy Elementary School and Achievement First Hartford Academy Middle School in 2008. Though the school district did not pay tuition for the schools’ students, it built the stadium and provided ongoing groundskeeping, security, and a range of other services. According to Hartford County Public Schools Director of External Communications David Medina, the partnership has been a huge success.

“They have an excellent track record working with low-income students,” he said.

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.