A Debate Over Charter Schools that Complicates Partisan Lines

If Senate Bill 949 passes, all taxpayer funded schools – public, charter, vocational and magnet – will receive no less than $11,525 in funding through a combination of state and local monies.  In other words, all publicly-funded schools would receive a “foundation amount” for the first time. 

“Charter schools have never received the full foundation amount, we’ve gradually been bringing it up,” said State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the state Appropriations Committee.

In total, almost 11,000 students attend charter schools, about 2 percent of the total student population, and this year each charter school received $11,250 per pupil. 

An additional $275 per student may not seem particularly significant, but for some parents of children attending charter schools, the acknowledgement that charter schools are indeed public schools deserving of equal funds would be huge. 

“I am part of a steady drum beat of families that are reaching out to you to ensure that our children don’t get pushed aside when it comes to equity in education,” Bernadette Gillot Lamousnery, a mother of two students at Achievement First Bridgeport Academy, testified in support of the legislation. 

Lamousnery and others point to the bill as a step towards equity in the funding of public schools.

“Demand with me that all students receive the same funding regardless of the school they attend in Connecticut. Right now, the state values my children’s education as less than their peers in other nearby schools,” she said. 

But not everyone sees it that way.

Others, including many educators, administrators, and Democratic legislators see the change as a potential drain on the local public school system.

That opinion was shared by the state’s Department of Education in testimony opposing the legislation:

“We believe this proposal may create a hardship for sending districts. In many cases they do not currently pay any tuition for their students attending magnet programs, nor do they currently pay tuition to the charter schools.”

A split in the Democratic Party

Unlike many debates in Hartford, the question of how and whether to fund charter schools does not break along typical party lines. In fact, Democrats in Connecticut are deeply divided on the issue.

“Connecticut has a very different political environment around Charter Schools than the nation as a whole,” said Ruben Felipe, the executive director of the Connecticut Charter Schools Association. “In Connecticut, Dan Malloy was very supportive, and parts of the legislature have started to come around.” 

At the federal level, Democrats are largely opposed to charter schools out of concern for lessened oversight and the possibility that “choice” schools will lead to reduced funding for local public schools.

“The big concerns with Charters are the lack of oversight and the draining of funds from public schools,” said Preston Green, the John and Carla Klein Professor of Urban Education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

Green warns that charter schools can be detrimental to the larger public school system even if they benefit, in relative terms, a small number of children.

“They are working against the school system as a whole,” Green said. “There is no sort of planning when they are established, making redistricting a constant burden for the school district.” 

Green said he does not view charter schools as public schools because they are not subject to the same scrutiny and standards as traditional public schools. And Green argues that directing funds toward charter schools before the state has even fulfilled its part in a court-ordered education cost sharing program between rich and poor public schools will leave low-income and minority children behind.

“At least fund the public schools that educate black and brown students first,” Green said. “Right now, our students are separate and unequal.” 

The Connecticut School and State Finance Project — a policy organization that gathers and analyzes data related to education funding — also testified that the change in funding would “exacerbate the state’s already alarming racial funding gap.” 

“Connecticut has a $639 million funding gap between districts serving majority white student populations and all other school districts. Based on our analysis of S.B. 949 and its changes to the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, the bill would exacerbate – not decrease – this alarming racial funding gap,” testified Lisa Hammersley, executive director School and State Finance Project.

Complicating this “racial funding gap,” is the reality that in Connecticut, 20 of the 21 charter schools are in urban areas and most serve primarily low-income populations with a higher-than-average percentage of Black and Hispanic students. 

For example, at the Achievement First Hartford School this school year, 78.4 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, about the same as the greater Hartford School District, compared to the state average of 42.7 percent, according to data provided by the state Department of Education. But more than 72 percent of the students are Black, compared to a statewide average of only 13 percent.

To Felipe and other proponents of charter schools, choice is an essential part of fixing the education system.

“Choice is an important part of fixing the separate and unequal education system,” he said. “The argument is always that charter schools take money away from public schools, but charter schools are public schools.” 

As Janet Brown-Clayton, the executive director of the Highville Charter School in New Haven put it, “we teach the same children, from the same dirge, the same priority districts, the same socioeconomic strata, and the same needs as their peers in public schools.”

Of course, he said, to achieve the best possible outcome for all Black and brown children the traditional public school system is essential, but schools of choice help. They provide a smaller, more nimble option for students today. 

“Charter schools are one way to address the overcrowding problem,” Osten said.  

To Felipe, the idea that charter schools are inherently detrimental to traditional public schools is just a way of pitting underserved children and families against one another.

Not part of the ideological discussion

For better and worse, the typical parent is less concerned about the source of funding or amount of administrative oversight, but simply on what school will educate their child best.

“I was a young parent, I was 24-years-old, a single dad. I didn’t think in terms of public school versus charter school, I just wanted the best school for my son,” Felipe said. “And it was really difficult in Bridgeport.”

Parents in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and the state’s other urban areas are faced with choosing the best of many more immediate options than typical suburban and rural families. There are the traditional public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, open choice programs, the list goes on… Many of these schools and programs use lottery or application systems that parents need to research and complete. 

“In Bridgeport you had to become a ninja knowing bussing, lottery schedules and a lot more,” Felipe said.

But many parents make the effort because they believe that charter schools offer better opportunities for their children without the cost of tuition. And about 6,000 students are currently waitlisted for the opportunity to attend charter schools in the state. 

In reality, not all of the 21 charter schools in Connecticut are high-achieving. 

In Bridgeport, for example, three of the five charter schools performed better and two performed worse than local public schools in English language arts and math.

The same is true in New Haven. 

Stamford Charter School of Excellence, which opened six years ago, routinely outperforms its suburban, Fairfield county neighbors. And unlike its neighbors, 61.6 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and less than 1 percent of the school’s students are white. 

“Our own former Commissioner of Education, now the Secretary of Education, considers it one of the best schools in the whole state,” Osten said. 

Two schools in limbo

Despite such acclaim, the Stamford Charter School of Excellence did not receive needed funding in the governor’s latest budget for an expansion approved in 2018.

The school currently serves kindergarten through sixth-grade students and has applied to serve kindergarten through eighth grade.

“In 2020 we were going to address that issue in appropriations, but we never voted on the budget,” Osten said. “This session it will be part of the budget.” 

The additional funding – $4.5 million – is expected to come from an appropriation previously sent to Stamford Academy which closed this past year.

The Lamont administration is not opposed to charter schools, according to Felipe, but is not the proponent that the previous administration was. Since taking office in 2018, the current administration has not approved a single new charter school nor has the state solicited proposals for additional charter schools.

Stamford Charter Schools of Excellence’s expansion is not the only school awaiting funding. The Danbury Prospect Charter School was also approved by the state Department of Education in 2018 and has not yet been given funding. 

Despite a $25 million private donation waiting to be used to construct the school, the Danbury school will likely not receive funding from the legislature this session.

“There is very strong opposition from the legislative delegation,” Felipe said. A couple of the members are ideologically opposed to charter schools and legislators don’t like to cross those geographic lines.”

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