By Rachel Chinapen
Education reform groups across the state hope to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of public education, a landscape that has been changing since the first cohort of public charters was approved nearly two decades ago.
Groups such as New Haven-based ConnCan and Connecticut Council for Education Reform, and StudentsFirst are widely recognized for their lobbying efforts to expand public charters, increase teacher and school accountability and increase funding for school choice programs. Other groups such as Educators4Excellence,Teach for America and Achievement First have more distinct niches including operating public charters and training educators to advocate for change at the state level.
Many of the groups say they opened offices in the state in response to requests from group members, community members and parents. In other cases, the attraction is being near a place such as New Haven, where collaboration has been proved possible by the nationally-recognized teacher contract agreement and ongoing school change initiative.
Yet, the nonprofits have raised eyebrows among traditional public education advocates who question the motives behind the groups and the policies put forth. Questions about the effectiveness of public charters, the impact reform makes on traditional public education and the link between private money and state influence are all part of the ongoing conversation around the state.
Across Connecticut, 18 public charter schools serve about 7,100 students, or 1.3 percent of the public school student population, according to the state Department of Education spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly. According to Donnelly, the first group of charter schools was approved in 1997. The state most recently approved four new charter schools: Booker T. Washington Academy in New Haven, Stamford Charter School for Excellence, and Great Oaks Charter School and Capital Prep Harbor School in Bridgeport.
“Parents want excellent schools, period,” said StudentsFirst Connecticut Director Jeri Powell, . “Parents, I’m finding, are less interested in the model and the delivery message, they’re mostly interested in the end results: Is this model working for my child? Is this model working for my school?”
Powell said StudentsFirst supports “excellence” whether through charter or “community local traditional.”
State Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor was unavailable for an interview but provided a statement about the role of reform groups in education:
“Though the array of stakeholder groups and advocacy organizations represent varying viewpoints and different approaches to educational improvement in our state, they collectively contribute invaluable ideas to our conversation and jointly inject needed energy into our work,” Pryor sad in the statement.
POLICY AND LOBBYING
In 2012, many groups lobbied in support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “education reform” bill. The bill included the launch of the Commissioner’s Network to turn around the state’s lowest performing schools and the expansion of “high-quality” school models such as magnets and charters.
ConnCan Executive Director Jennifer Alexander said ConnCan invested in Malloy’s bill because the organization believed in the reforms put forth. Alexander said ConnCan lobbied again in 2013, this time to ensure initiatives in the bill would be funded.
“It was a real exciting time in that that bill was hailed by all sides as real progress for the state,” she said.
Alexander said ConnCan advocates mostly for state-level policy change because they believe policy plays an “important role” in creating “conditions” in which schools and districts work effectively. ConnCan’s policies focus on protecting “landmark” education reforms, increasing high quality options, turning around low performing schools, raising standards and accountability and improving the education funding system, Alexander said.
In Connecticut, charters are funded through a separate line item in the state budget. The per pupil rate for 2014-15 is $11,000, a $500 increase from 2013-14. Funding flows from the state to the district, then to the school. This funding is separate from the Education Cost Sharing money traditional public schools receive for all students residing within the district.
Alexander said Connecticut is one of few states where the dollars don’t follow students. Alexander acknowledged that the ECS formula is underfunded.
“This whole question and the murkiness around it just speaks to a much larger issue, which is, that the way that we fund our public school students and our public schools is fundamentally broken and doesn’t treat a student fairly, no matter where they go to school,” Alexander said.
Similar to ConnCan, StudentsFirst was particularly active in lobbying for Malloy’s education reform package in 2012 because the group supported the initiatives, Powell said.
“I think that he really raised the issue of education reform and put it in the spotlight and made it a highlight of his platform that year,” Powell said.
StudentsFirst tailors its lobbying efforts on a state-by-state basis, according to StudentsFirst spokesman Francisco Castillo.
The organization’s policy paper “Empowering Parents with Quality School Options: School Choice Today” outlines the overarching policies supported by the group: school vouchers, public charter expansion and accountability, and open enrollment.
“We need to be the first ones to say this model isn’t working, this charter isn’t working,” Powell said. “We advocate not only expanding high quality charters options but we also advocate that we hold charters accountable for results.”
Powell said right now the Connecticut branch’s efforts are “almost entirely focused” on “local organizing and mobilizing” in Hartford. Powell said lobbying may be part of training for parents to show them how to “use your voices to effect change all the way to the policy level, all the way up to the state level.”
Hartford Board of Education member Robert Cotto Jr. said reform groups have “rightfully” identified a “subset” of students who are not doing well academically.
Yet, Cotto said, “I question the policies that they’re proposing to address these issues.”
“The problem of academic achievement is a result of a number of factors; it’s about economic security, housing security, health and nutrition, as well as access and opportunities to school,” he said.
By email, Achievement First spokeswoman Amanda Pinto said the nonprofit engages in “grassroots lobbying” with a couple of AF members registering as “communicator lobbyists.” Achievement First operates a network of 25 schools across five cities. Given a week’s notice, Achievement First did not provide an interview outside of email exchanges.
“We engage in grassroots lobbying, meaning we state our opinion to our families and ask that they contact their legislators about certain issues. We also engage directly with our legislators: we have face-to-face meetings and provide information about issues impacting our schools. In order to engage with legislators in this way, some team members must register as lobbyists, even though we are not a lobbying organization engaged in frequent lobbying practices. Usually, one to two AF team members are registered as “communicator lobbyists” so that they can communicate with Connecticut legislators about issues important to Achievement First students and families.”
Teach for America plays a less direct role in lobbying efforts and policy development, according to TFA Connecticut Executive Director Nate Snow.
Snow said the national nonprofit doesn’t lobby unless something directly impacts legislation for teacher certification. He said the group doesn’t train teachers on how to lobby or organize.
Snow said the nonprofit’s role is more about “spending time with teachers, saying this is what good instruction looks like, and this is what quality leadership looks like, and here’s how you can improve your practice as an educator and as a leader.”
Educators4Excellence, on the other hand, works with teachers to advocate for policies. The group organizes “teacher policy teams,” groups of about 20 teachers who research, share experiences and write policy recommendations, according to its website. E4E recently opened an office in Connecticut.
E4E Co-Founder and Co-CEO Sydney Morris said the group works with union members and is not associated with Education Reform Now or Democrats for Education Reform. Between 2011 and 2013, E4E received $3,975,636 in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation.
Groups including ConnCan and Northeastern Charter School Network often report that charters score higher on state assessments than their host districts. Charters do not, however, serve the same population as traditional public schools.
A recent CT Voices for Children report examined how successful school choice programs are in providing equity to every student. The report, written by Cotto and Kenneth Feder, found magnet, charter and technical schools have a higher percentage of minority and low-income students than traditional public schools, but fewer English language learner and special education students. The report also found charter schools to be “hyper-segregated” by race/ethnicity, serving more than 90 percent minority students.
By email, Achievement First’s Chief External Officer Chastity Lord spoke to the population the network serves:
“All of our students are admitted through blind lottery. We know that, in a perfect world, schools would represent the rich diversity that society has to offer. The fact is, too many lower-income students do not have enough good options for school. We have three to five student enrollment forms for every seat at our schools. The demand is significant. If we were to impose racial or economic quotas on the lottery, some number of low-income students would be denied a potentially life-changing opportunity.”
DOES MONEY MATTER?
In a blog post, communications strategist Jonathan Pelto and Wendy Lecker, an education lawyer and columnist outspoken on education issues, reported reform groups spent a “record breaking $6 million plus lobbying” to support Malloy’s education reform efforts over three years, and in 2013, were appointed seats on the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee. Every five years the state Board of Education is mandated to create a new five-year committee to formulate a plan for elementary, secondary, vocational, career and adult education in the state, according to the post.
Achievement First and ConnCan board member Jonathan Sackler maxed out his contribution this year, giving $10,000 to the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee. His wife, Mary Corson, also maxed out her contribution this year.
When asked about the donations, Alexander said there is no connection between what board members do and ConnCan.
“Whatever Jon or anyone else does in terms of political donations is something they do on their own time, it is not at all part of ConnCan’s official business; that’s something that he’s doing in his personal capacity,” she said.
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