by Jeremiah Grace
Last week the Appropriations Committee stripped out funding for new state charter schools from the Governor’s proposed education budget. This comes on the heels of the latest round of applications for new charter schools, which garnered 24 letters of intent and seven applications, with more waiting to apply in the fall. If the Assembly’s version of the budget passes, no state charter and only two local charters can be approved in the next two years. A major chunk of the momentum from 2012’s “Year of Education Reform” will have dissipated when it comes to charters.
But the sad part isn’t the frustrated aspirations of the governor or of charter advocates. The sad part is the parents lining up at a public hearing to support proposed charter schools that might not open. The sad part is that almost 4,000 names are on charter waiting lists. The sad part is that thousands of students might continue to attend schools where they fall through the cracks of the nation’s largest achievement gap, despite the best efforts of faith and community leaders.
Meanwhile, the Connecticut charter sector is small, but very strong. Nearly 80 percent of Connecticut’s charter schools outperform their host districts on the state’s School Performance Index, all while creating a meaningful diversity of approaches within the state’s public education landscape.
Yet Connecticut can’t seem to open new charter schools. The last time a charter was opened was 2008 – an expansion by an existing operator. The last time a charter was opened by a newoperator was 2006. Connecticut has had a net gain of one charter school since 1999 – tied for the lowest growth of all the 40-odd states with charter schools (unless you count Mississippi, where there was no state charter law until this year).
The United States has an estimated 6,000 charter public schools serving more than 2 million students, with 110 cities enrolling at least 10 percent of students in charters, 25 districts enrolling more than 20 percent, and the top three districts enrolling around 40 percent. Connecticut, on the other hand, remains frozen in time at just over 1 percent of its students attending charters and no district over 10 percent.
So why is Connecticut turning students and families away from charter schools in droves and making scant effort to meet this demonstrable public need?
The short answer is money.
At the root of Connecticut’s glacial-like approach to charter expansion is the fact that state charters were historically funded via a stand-alone state grant, and the assembly’s budget proposal would reaffirm this flawed funding system.
The isolation of the charter grant from the rest of the education budget made it a target for the legislature every budget season. Traditional public school districts can raise local revenue, which charters cannot do. But more importantly, this ensures that funding for charter schools is arbitrary – not formula-driven. Public school funding should “follow the child” because this gives parents full control of their child’s destiny, and the ability to truly “vote with their feet” and push the public education system to be more responsive to their needs.
But right now it looks like parents are left to howl in the wind.