A proposal for a two-year moratorium on public charter schools has ignited impassioned debate and tapped into long-standing disagreement over how well the schools perform and whether they drain needed resources from ordinary neighborhood schools.
“I ask that you consider our social, moral and American obligation to educate our youth and not further disable our true public school students…” said Dennis Bradley in legislative testimony in support of the moratorium. “It’s only logical … that we consider all positive and negative factors in the light of the best interest for our children.”
Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford, who proposed the moratorium, said he supported the development of the state’s first charters back in the ’90s but has been disappointed with the performance of the schools.
Although the state says that 86 percent of charter elementary schools and 83 percent of charter high schools outperformed their host districts in 2013 on the state’s standardized tests, Vargas said that he wants more detail on how students are doing, on the funding for the schools and other operating policies.
“Over the years, we have to take their word, they are doing a great job, but there’s very little independent verification of any of it,” Vargas said.
Senate Bill 1096, raised by the education committee, calls for a halt on the approval of new charter schools after July 1, until the state education commissioner develops a comprehensive statewide charter school plan and conducts a review of existing charter schools. The plan would have to be submitted by Feb. 1, 2017, and would be reviewed by a legislative joint standing committee.
In addition, the bill would strengthen accountability for charters, and it calls for charter management organizations to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Testimony On Both Sides
State lawmakers, who had varying opinions on the subject, heard testimony on both sides of the issue last week from students, parents, educators and state and city officials at a legislative hearing that covered many topics and went on for a dozen hours.
Kadejah Gamble, a junior at Achievement First Hartford High School, says the school transformed her from a student who skipped class and didn’t want to learn into an honors student set on attending Connecticut College and becoming a psychologist.
“I had this great opportunity to go to a public charter school that prepared me for success, but if this bill is passed, that opportunity will be taken away from someone else,” Kadejah told legislators. “I want other kids in Hartford, and everywhere, to have what I have.”
Many said they oppose the moratorium, but do support the aspects of the bill that would strengthen accountability. Several noted that Connecticut’s charter school law has been ranked among the worst and most outdated in the country by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
If the bill has legs, it might be related to the convergence of an extraordinarily tight budget year that comes amid an unfolding scandal involving the Harford-based Jumoke Academy charter schools and the Family Urban Schools of Excellence F– USE charter management group.
The Courant disclosed last summer that F– USE CEO Michael M. Sharpe was a convicted felon who lied about having a doctoral degree. Sharpe resigned after the disclosures. Later, a state report confirmed The Courant’s reporting of rampant nepotism and numerous financial missteps at the charter operation. The matter remains under federal investigation.
“Bad apples can happen in any system, but you have to have the controls in place to make sure” it doesn’t happen again, Vargas said.
Concern For State’s Poorest Children
In the hours of testimony last week, many of the speakers said that a moratorium would diminish opportunity for the state’s poorest children and that they feared it could derail charters for a period well beyond two years.
Several speakers pointed out that a moratorium on magnets — except in the Hartford area because of the Sheff desegregation case — went into effect in 2009 and still holds.
Proponents of charter schools estimate that 3,600 students are on waiting lists for charter schools in Connecticut.
Such testimony was countered by others who said that charters “cherry-pick” their students, failing to serve the neediest children and those with disabilities, while siphoning funds from struggling neighborhood schools.
Sauda Baraka, a member of the Bridgeport Board of Education, said that the city has the largest number of charters — five — and that the schools “cost us millions of dollars, dollars that we don’t have. Each dollar taken from our district further burdens us.”
Baraka said that the charters schools are “bastions of segregation” that “select and deselect our students at will” and take “our best students.”
Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First, a nonprofit network of public schools in Connecticut and New York, disputed those arguments, saying that the schools “have a strong track record of academic results, while serving many of the state’s highest-need students.”
She said that charters infuse the districts with more money because the state pays $11,000 for each charter student, while not cutting back the district’s Education Cost Sharing grant.
To claims that charters force out students who aren’t succeeding, Toll said that only 2 percent of students leave Achievement First schools in New Haven each year, compared with 3.5 percent leaving local neighborhood schools.
On the segregation issue, Toll said “it feels a bit like a Catch-22.”
Toll said the schools could open seats for suburban students, but “for every one of those children that we admit, we would not be serving a student who had far fewer choices and options and frankly are much more dependent on public education to achieve success in life.”
“We have chosen very specifically by mission to serve low-income students,” she said.
Uncertain in all of this is the future of two charters that were approved by the State Board of Education last spring. Those proposals for Capital Prep Harbor School in Bridgeport and Stamford Charter School for Excellence were approved to open this fall. However, those schools cannot do so until the legislature approves funding for them.
Unlike many states, Connecticut has a two-step process for establishing a new charter school. First, the State Board of Education decides on whether to approve the charter. But then, the final say goes to the legislature, which decides whether to fund the charters.
Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, and co-chairman of the legislature’s education committee, said that Connecticut’s procedures can lead to a lot of “misplaced expectations and confusion” for charter operators and for student applicants who might not fully understand that unless the General Assembly allocates dollars for the school, it does not open.
In his budget, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed funding for new charter seats: $12 million for the next fiscal year and $7.9 million for the following year. But legislators say that with the current budget troubles, it’s not clear whether the state can afford to open new schools.
Representatives of the two charter schools told legislators last week that they already have many students interested in attending.
Steve Perry, who is principal of Capitol Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford and is trying to establish the Capital Prep charter in Bridgeport, said that in just three weeks after notifying residents that the school might open for the next school year, “more than 150 families have found a way to take our application.”
A moratorium, Perry said, “would change the discussion from doing what we must do, to doing what we’ve always done, which is to take the most disenfranchised children and leave them on the back burner until we find what we believe to be the solution that never comes.”
At a news conference last week, Malloy told reporters that he wouldn’t “support a moratorium of the creation of any kind public school in the state. I think you open schools when you need to open them for any number of purposes.”
Budget May Be Bigger Factor
For many legislators, it is troubling to see that Malloy’s proposed budget keeps funding flat for Education Cost Sharing grants, while proposing to invest close to $60 million in charters and magnet schools over the next two years.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, a member of the education committee and co-chairwoman of the appropriations committee, has spoken often of what she sees as a huge disparity in the aggressive growth of spending for magnets and charters, compared to the spending on regular neighborhood schools.
Bye said last week that she wants to see a statewide strategic educational plan developed before more money goes into so-called “choice” schools such as magnets and charters.
“We are getting deeper and deeper into magnets and charters, while we are deeply underfunding our [neighborhood] public schools,” she said.
Bye said she favors a moratorium on new charters until that strategic plan is developed, but she said it could take much less time than two years. “It could be a year,” she said.
Fleischmann said he thinks “it’s possible for the legislature to hit the pause button on the creation of new charter schools, without necessarily putting a moratorium into the statute books.”
He said that the legislature could simply decide not to fund new charter schools this year.
“In the midst of the budget crisis, I continue to have my doubts about the wisdom of opening brand-new charters school,” he said, “in the same way that I have doubts about opening brand-new magnet schools.”
‘A Red Flag’
Hanging over the discussions on charters and moratoriums is the specter of F– USE and Jumoke.
Melodie Peters, president of AFT Connecticut, spoke in favor of the moratorium, telling legislators, “I know when something sends up a red flag, and when I look at the mess that we had to deal with in Hartford then, which is still under investigation, that tells me that there are some real concerns here.”
Peters said, “Let’s put the brakes on this craziness and look at what we have and look at what is working and apply it so that all kids have the same opportunity.”
Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, said he thinks the F– USE “disaster” is “a question in everyone’s mind.”
“Truthfully, that’s what folks are referring to when they raise concern about fiscal responsibility and accountability. In Connecticut’s context, we’re talking about F– USE.
“That certainly was a sad day for charters. That lack of oversight is very disturbing to me. All schools, all charters have to be held to the same high standards and the same level of fiscal transparency,” he said.
His concern with having a moratorium, Villar said, is that “it sounds to me like, ‘Let’s punish the children for the acts of the adults.’ I don’t want to punish kids because adults didn’t do the things right.”
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