HARTFORD — Area NAACP members and founders of a proposed charter school spoke out at the State Capitol on Monday over a sudden removal of state funding for the school – a decision several claimed was made without explanation and racially motivated.
The budget proposal put forward by the legislature’s budget committee in April allocated $200,000 to the Capital Preparatory Charter School in Middletown for the 2024 school year and $4.75 million for the 2025 school year.
But the budget expected to be approved within the next three days does not contain those funds, and members of the Middletown NAACP and the charter school board say they were given no reason why.
During a news conference about the charter school, Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, rejected the idea that the money had been removed in a “backroom deal.”
“It is fair to say the Middletown delegation is divided on it. I wouldn’t say they’re all opposed to it. I think there’s some disagreement [on] how to handle it that puts us in a tough spot,” he said.
Middletown NAACP President Anita Ford Saunders, charter school Board of Directors Chair Yvette Highsmith-Francis, and Capital Preparatory Schools CEO Steve Perry, all emphasized at the news conference that they followed the process of applying for a charter from the state “to the letter” since the planning began in the spring of 2022.
William McKissick, president of the Ministerial Alliance of Middletown and a founding member of the school, added that he’s had conversations with parents about problems they’ve faced in the local public schools, and Capital Prep kept coming up as a good “alternative.”
“There are some children who excel in the public school system, and thank God for that. But there are some children who really are not doing well, and all we want to do is put them on a successful track. We don’t want our children to end up in the penal system,” McKissick said Monday.
But other members of the community are in strong opposition to having a charter school in the district.
In March, State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who has vocally opposed the charter school, shared a document with CT Examiner from the legislature’s budgetary office estimating that funding for Capital Prep could result in an annual loss of $4 million in state money to the city’s public schools by 2028.
The Middletown Racial Justice Coalition, a grassroots organization that offers anti-racism training and community advocacy work, also authored a letter to state officials in April urging them to remove the charter school funding from the budget, arguing it would take money away from public schools.
The organization, which is led primarily by Black and brown residents of Middletown, wrote that while they understood why a parent may want a different educational option for their children, the better solution was to press public schools to create better outcomes. The charter school, they said, would help only the students who attended, leaving the other children of Middletown in a school system that didn’t work.
“We know that our current educational systems are racist and that they are not treating families of color with the dignity they deserve. It’s understandable that folks would want to leave,” the coalition wrote. “Our communities need funding for anti-racist teaching, hiring, and curriculum development. Capital Prep Middletown will not eradicate the issues of racism for all, or even most, of our children of color in Middletown.”
Not enough students, not enough funding
Highsmith-Francis said the charter school committee held at least six meetings at various venues throughout the summer, fall and winter of 2022.
In February, the state Department of Education held a public hearing at Vinal Technical High School, where parents and community members, as well as students bused in from Capital Prep schools in Bridgeport and Harlem and the Bronx, New York, packed the auditorium.
Parents recounted experiences of racism within the Middletown Public Schools system and expressed frustration at the lack of opportunity they saw for students, particularly students of color.
But attendees also pushed back against opening a Capital Prep charter school, questioning the school’s academic performance and college graduation rates, and voicing concern for students that remained behind in the public schools. Several community members also said they did not have an opportunity to speak during the meeting.
Paul Angelucci, president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers, the union that represents Vinal Technical High School, said the Middletown area did not have enough students to support another school. At full capacity, Capital Prep would have space for 400 students in grades nine through 12.
He also took issue with how the February public hearing was organized, claiming the process was “rigged” because Capital Prep controlled the sign-up sheet of speakers. Highsmith-Francis, on the other hand, argued during the news conference that the rules were changed halfway through the hearing, preventing some proponents of Capital Prep from testifying.
In March, the State Board of Education approved an initial certification for the school over the recommendation of Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker. At the time, Russell-Tucker said she wanted to give the board more time to read the large number of community comments and make sure everyone’s voice was heard.
The favorable vote followed 2.5 hours of public testimony, the vast majority in support of the charter school.
Lesser said the process for approving the school lacked a “meaningful town hall forum” for people to voice their concerns, and questioned the need for an additional school amid a shrinking public school population.
Senate Democrats, Lesser and State Sen. Jan Hochadel, D-Meriden, who also represents part of Middletown, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Middletown Common Council Majority Leader Eugene Nocera, however, echoed Lesser’s concerns in a statement to CT Examiner on Monday. He said some council members felt the process of getting community approval had been done too quickly and without enough input, and that the question of how much funding the district stood to lose if a charter school entered the district was still unclear.
“Of course, the council is involved in funding the Board of Ed, and we’re struggling to find the resources every year since the pandemic to do the best we can. So revenue is a concern — lost revenue,” Nocera said.
Janice Pawlak, president of the Middletown Federation of Teachers and a third-grade teacher at Wesley Elementary School, told CT Examiner that the union believed the best action was to fully fund traditional public schools rather than send money to a charter school. She added that the union has been asking the state to send more funds to Vinal Tech, which she said has been “long neglected.”
“At the end of any legislative process, lawmakers have to make choices. For Middletown, we believed the choice was clear – stand up for the community’s traditional public schools that have been historically under-resourced and educate the overwhelming majority of local students,” she said.
‘An opportunity of choice’
Ahead of the Monday gathering, Common Council member Grady Faulkner told CT Examiner that he felt there should be further conversations about possible funding losses to the school district and how to mitigate it. Faulkner has testified twice in favor of the school.
“I told them what issues I had with my kids in the public school system, and I wound up sending them to another school,” he said. “I had to pay through the nose. That affected my life. I had to sell property and stuff like that to do that.”
Faulkner said Middletown already loses public school students whose parents choose to send them to magnet schools outside the district. He suggested Capital Prep might provide a better option for those children.
Saunders and others in attendance emphasized that having a charter school was about options, particularly for families that couldn’t afford to pay for local private schools like Mercy and Xavier high schools.
“Sometimes, you have to think — it’s not really about the school. It is about Black and brown people having an opportunity of choice for their children,” Saunders said.
Others were more strident. Highsmith-Francis said the Capital Prep would “break a cycle of an achievement chasm in the city of Middletown.”
State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, urged people at the news conference to continue fighting for the school’s funding and push Democrats to talk about the issue.
“The state of Connecticut does not have a solution to educate Black, brown, poor children,” he said. “Parents and children are required to attend school and, unfortunately, they are required to attend schools in their neighborhood, where they know the opportunities at the end of the day are going to be bad for their children.”
Several speakers also said they believed the school funding removal was motivated by racism.
“They changed the game in the 11th hour. Black people are familiar with this. This has happened to us since we stepped foot on the soil of America. These are the games that they played with us,” said Scot Esidale, president of the Connecticut NAACP. “If it looks like racism and it smells like racism, and it looks like discrimination and smells like discrimination, it’s probably discrimination.”
Perry told CT Examiner he “should have known better” than to think the charter school group’s efforts would convince the state to offer funding.
“There’s no way that an overwhelmingly Black group of community members could make a decision in the state of Connecticut,” he said.
Perry said Capital Prep schools are able to achieve student success because of their founding in the African American community. He cited research showing that children of color who have teachers of color are more likely to attend college. He also noted that being part of a diverse community allows the schools to address issues specific to the children they work with — like establishing an LGBTQ group in 2005 after recognizing that young Black men struggling with their sexuality were the most likely to commit suicide.
“Our school’s theme is social justice,” Perry said. “We understand some of the challenges that our children confront. It doesn’t make us a perfect school — it just makes us another school.”
If funding had been approved, Capital Prep Middletown was scheduled to open in 2024.
During the news conference, Ritter indicated the funding would have to wait until next year.
“I think the conversations will continue over the next 12 months — or not even. We’ll be back in [session] in February. We’ll see where we are in February,” he said.