HARTFORD – The state legislature’s Education Committee voted to advance a bill that would change the process for approving charter schools, despite fierce opposition from the state’s two largest teachers unions, who called the bill “an abdication of legislative control over tens of millions of dollars for public education.”
State Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, who co-chair the committee, referred to an email sent on Wednesday to the committee members from the Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers as “placing a bulls-eye” on the members of the committee. He said it put the teachers on the committee in a particularly bad position if they decided to vote against what their unions wanted.
“I have never, in my 19 years here, been — some people say, ‘vaguely threatened’ — about how I vote on a certain piece of legislation,” said McCrory. “You all read the letter. And they’re going to take score of how you all vote on this one piece of legislation.”
The email said that this bill would be one of the bills that CEA would be scoring as part of their “legislative report card” – an annual rating the union gives to each legislator based on the way they vote on certain bills.
The bill, if approved by the full legislature, would give the state Board of Education the ability to fund charter schools after approving an application — a process that the state originally followed. The legislation would also create a non-lapsing fund within the legislature specifically for funding new charter schools.
Currently, because of a legislative change in 2015, the state Board of Education can only offer an initial certification to the charter school. The school then has to obtain a separate approval from the legislature as a whole to receive funding
The teachers unions argued in their email to legislators that the change was made to stop “deceptive [Charter Management Organizations]” from starting to enroll students before the state approved funding. But advocates for the change, like McCrory, have noted that since the 2015 change, no new charter schools have opened in Connecticut.
In 2018, the state Board of Education approved funding for two charter schools — the Danbury Prospect Charter School and the Norwalk Charter School for Excellence. But the state has yet to allocate the funding so that the schools can open, effectively leaving them in limbo.
In an email sent to legislators, the unions argued that enrollment increases in charter schools have led to declines in the number of students in traditional public schools — and, with it, a loss of funding for those schools. According to the unions, charter funding has gone up more than 1,000 percent since 2000, while state funding for traditional public schools has gone up about 60 percent during that time.
AFT Vice President for PreK-12 Educators Mary Yordon said in a statement to CT Examiner that the union was focused on getting more funding to the public schools. The Connecticut Education Association did not respond to a request for comment.
“Decades of under investment have made Connecticut’s public school system the worst in the nation for funding inequity. The public school students who need the most support live in districts with the lowest levels of per-pupil school funding, the worst staffing shortages, and the largest class sizes,” said Yordon. “That’s why we are working together with lawmakers to fully fund the ECS formula this session, fully staff our schools and keep the existing process for approving and funding new charters.”
But McCrory said during the committee meeting that the fundamental issue was rooted in the deeper and pervasive inequalities in the education and academic achievement of Black and Brown students.
“I don’t have a definition for institutional racism. I don’t have a definition for structural racism. I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like. But more importantly, I know how it impacts my community,” said McCrory.
Since 1987, McCrory said, the state of Connecticut has boasted one of the highest achievement rates among its students, but also one of the largest opportunity gaps for marginalized and under-resourced communities. He said that in 1987 in the city of Hartford, 92 percent of children were unable to read at grade level.
“It was going on in Hartford, it was going on in New Haven, it was going on in Bridgeport, it was going on in Waterbury,” said McCrory. “Unfairly and unfortunately, I have to say, today, those numbers are no different.”
Charter schools, he said, gave parents in Black and Brown communities a different option for their children.
“These schools that are opening up, they’re not asking to go outside of their community. They’re not asking to reuse resources in someone else’s community. They’re not asking for that. They’re asking for an opportunity to educate the same children in the same neighborhoods where they’re not getting academic success,” said McCrory.
State Rep. Rachel Chaleski, R-Danbury, said she was voting for the bill after her experience in Danbury.
“No community should ever have to go through what we’ve been through,” said Chaleski. She said that although Danbury High School was “a phenomenal school,” it wasn’t the right environment for every student.
“If we could only help a small percentage of students get what they need, why wouldn’t we help them?” she said.
In an email to legislators, the unions also expressed concerns about accountability. They argued that charter schools were allowed to accept private donations as well as state funds, and that they were not required to disclose that information. They also brought up the recent approval of Capital Prep Charter School in Middletown, which the state Board of Education approved over the commissioner’s recommendation to allow more time for public comment.
“If [this bill] passes, members of the public, community groups, and members of the affected delegation would lose out on existing opportunities to have their voice heard on new charter applications,” the email read. “Appointed members of the State Board of Education would have the final say over tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer monies for charter schools, with no effective legislative oversight.”
McCrory said that the idea that charter schools were not subject to the same accountability as traditional public schools was incorrect.
“If their children were not performing at a level higher than the children in their same neighborhoods, we will shut you down. You will not have an opportunity to take more taxpayers dollars and not properly educate those children,” said McCrory. He added that traditional public schools often continued to operate despite having low academic achievement rates.
But other legislators said they weren’t convinced. State Rep. Maryam Khan, D-Windsor, pushed back against McCrory’s statement, saying that the traditional public schools in low-income communities were not getting the funding they needed to succeed.
“Until we give schools what they need, it’s unfair to say that they need to be held accountable,” said Khan, who added that she was concerned about the students who were left in the traditional public schools after other children left for the charter schools.
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, abstained from voting, saying she supported school choice but that she was “still in conflict about some of the pieces” of the bill. She said she wanted more time to look into how the bill would impact the funding for traditional public schools.
The bill passed 30-13, and will be sent to the legislature’s Budget Committee.