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To Build A Better Student ...

February 9, 2007
Editorial By Courant

Imagine the state of Washington telling Bill Gates he can't make any more software.

Then you might understand Connecticut, where we are so wrapped up in the past that we let another state steal our best ideas. That's why I had to drive to Brooklyn, N.Y., to see what some of Connecticut's most innovative educators are up to.

Inside a couple of drafty and cramped school buildings, I found the folks behind Achievement First, the stereotype-shattering company that runs some of the best charter schools in the land.

At four new schools in Brooklyn, Achievement First is expanding what it started in New Haven: break-the-mold institutions where poor, minority students learn that educational achievement isn't just for white kids.

New York is robbing us of one of our best homegrown ideas. How about we get fighting mad about this - instead of always assuming that the solution is more money?

State law in Connecticut prohibits charter schools from expanding. So Achievement First - the folks behind New Haven's Amistad Academy and Elm City College Prep - can't build new schools here. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg saw a good thing, though, and snatched away something we created.

We have arguably the worst achievement gap between minority and white students in the land. The pioneering group behind Amistad came along and actually created schools where African American students beat white kids at the testing game.

"Nobody is saying that charter schools are the be all and end all, but they are a significant part," Achievement First President Dacia Toll told me as we walked through her new sixth-grade school.

Toll is very happy with New York. The chancellor of schools has promised to build her a high school. Unlike Connecticut, the city department of education takes care of maintenance and cleaning. She has been welcomed as an important part of the city's public schools - not a threat to the status quo.

The status quo, by the way, is failing children in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. These aren't just poor kids. They are our future workforce.

We get the state's largest teachers' union, the Connecticut Education Association, actually opposing expansion of charter schools. This is a finger-in-the-eye insult to Connecticut taxpayers, who foot the bill for our failing city schools.

It isn't because the Achievement First teachers are low paid, poorly trained or ill-equipped - they aren't. It's because these teachers aren't in the union. Anyone who said it was about the kids hasn't watched union lobbyists at work at the Capitol.

Three cheers for Gov. Rell, who in her audacious budget proposal would provide more funding and a very limited expansion of charter schools. She should go further and demand that the legislature permit our most successful charters to open new schools.

The independent education reform group ConnCan recognized Elm City and Amistad in its list of top education reform success stories, with test scores that beat the suburbs and that are among the highest achievement levels for poor and minority children. And they're doing it for thousands less than failing schools in Hartford.

"I actually believe it's the way to save public education," said Toll, a Yale Law School grad who found her future in education reform and who now happily shares her ideas with other public schools. "I don't get why people feel loyalty to broken institutions."

It's a question we should all be asking. It's time to embrace the education entrepreneurs of the world, not push them out the door.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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