Imagine if you couldn't read this sentence.
Where would you be now?
Elm City College Preparatory School, a public charter school in
New Haven, opened in the fall of 2004, only 26 percent of its incoming
K-8 students could read at or above grade level. Unfortunately,
they are not alone. Many of Connecticut's public schools serving
low-income students have similar results - with devastating implications
for their students' opportunities later in life.
The partnership of parents, teachers
and students at Elm City were determined to do something different,
and committed themselves to turning things around. And they did.
By May 2005, Elm City had accomplished
an educational wonder: 96 percent of its students were now reading
at or above grade level, an astounding increase of 70 percentage
points in only one school year. The students not only feel accomplished,
but their sense of hope and opportunity for their future has been
But, now in its second year of operation,
Elm City is already bumping up against Connecticut's state-imposed
enrollment cap of 250-300 students per school, with 256 students
in grades K, 1, 2, 5, and 6. If the state does not lift the cap
soon, Elm City will not be able to fill out its K-8 classrooms,
and it will face the impossible choice of either cutting off new
enrollments or sending away students graduating from the second
Unfortunately, Elm City's challenges
are not an isolated case. Despite the success of many of the state's
best charter schools in dramatically raising student achievement,
their future is in doubt.
While Connecticut is home to some of
our nation's highest-performing charter schools, it is also the
only state in the nation to set an enrollment cap on each of its
charter schools, regardless of performance. Currently, half of Connecticut's
14 charter schools are at or near this cap.
The source of this coming enrollment
crunch is a decade-old political compromise. To secure legislative
passage, in 1996 a number of provisions were included in the original
legislation allowing for the creation and funding of charter schools,
including limitations on the number of charter schools, reduced
per-pupil funding below that of traditional public schools, and
capped enrollment at 250-300 students per school. As a result, the
percentage of students in Connecticut charter schools is one-fourth
the national average. Worse, schools working to offer children a
complete, effective K-8 learning environment find their efforts
Demand for charter schools is intensifying.
In 2002-2003, 39 percent of charter schools across the country reported
waiting lists averaging 135 students. Here in Connecticut, the demand
for many charter schools is so great that they have to turn away
two out of every three students who apply through public lottery.
Fortunately, help may be on the way.
Last month, the State Board of Education unanimously approved a
sweeping plan to expand the network of charter schools to not only
increase the number of children helped by these schools but to serve
as a catalyst for districtwide educational reform.
This proposal would transform the role
that charter schools play in Connecticut's public education system,
increasing the number of schools from 14 to 24 and lifting the enrollment
cap on existing and future charter schools - with the vision of
changing the discussion about what kinds of gains in student achievement
are possible within our urban public school districts.
Over the next three weeks, Gov. M.
Jodi Rell and her advisers will decide whether or not to include
the board's recommendations in her new budget. Unfortunately, her
political advisers are currently engaged in public courting of the
teachers union - the Connecticut Education Association - that is
most vigorously opposed to the board's recommendations. We trust
the governor will rise above political business as usual in this
election year and support schools that are doing so much for those
with so little.
And if the governor is reading this,
we hope she will take a moment to reflect on the many kids in her
state who can't.
Nelson Smith, a nationally recognized
expert on charter schools and education policy, is president of
the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington,
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at