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Budget Cuts Forcing Charter Schools To Take Hard Look At Their Future

State Reduced Funding Increase


January 14, 2013

Less than a year ago, the future looked bright for charter schools in Connecticut, with a promise of support from the governor and the General Assembly's commitment of additional funding for each of the next three years.

That led to a groundswell of interest from people who want to start new charter schools, with the state Department of Education recently receiving 24 letters of interest from prospective operators.

But state budget problems have suddenly created an uncertain future for charters in Connecticut. The General Assembly's decision in December to slash the funding increase for at least this year has left current operators with a budgetary nightmare and those proposing new schools with serious questions.

"It's definitely an issue of concern to us,'' said Virginia Spell, vice president of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut in Stamford, which hopes to open a charter high school for boys in New Haven. "To have that funding stream and then have it yanked back is a little disconcerting."

Spell said the initial increase in funding for each student approved for the current school year from $9,400 to $10,500 was the "first step in really coming in line with what the rest of the country is doing." Now, the $300 per student cut in that increase approved in December has left schools struggling to pay the bills.

"The impact on Jumoke and other charters is devastating," said Michael Sharpe, chief executive officer of Jumoke Academy Charter Schools in Hartford. "All of our staffing and our hires are based upon a budget that the state gives us, so in the middle of the year when you have to take almost $200,000 out of our budget We have been in marathon sessions since we got wind of this."

For example, Sharpe said the school is trying to assess whether it can take money out of its snowplowing budget and whether staff cuts might be needed. The school used some of the increase to hire a vitally needed special education teacher, Sharpe said.

At Achievement First in New Haven, which operates 10 schools in Connecticut, Dacia Toll, co-chief executive officer and president, said, "We are making really brutal mid-year cuts to trips and support services" and possibly to personnel.

"What we would like is the same resources, not more resources, but the same resources as the traditional public schools are getting, and the governor's leadership had taken meaningful steps in that direction," Toll said. "That got rolled back partially in December, and the fear is, it could be rolled back even further and then a core pillar of the governor's reform plan will have been gutted."

She said she fears that the state's "short-term fiscal crisis will overshadow the far more devastating educational crisis we are facing," which she added will "sacrifice long-term economic and community strength."

The yearly cost per student in traditional public schools is about $14,000, while the per pupil expenditure for students in urban schools often runs higher. The General Assembly approved a plan last spring that would bring the allocation for charter schools to $10,500 this year, $11,000 next year and $11,500 the year after.

Proponents of charter schools say the underfunding in Connecticut is part of the reason the state has comparatively few charters. Last year 4.2 percent of students attended charter schools nationally, while in Connecticut the percentage was 1.1, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Since 2007, only two new charter schools have opened in Connecticut, while since 2006, at least 20 people or groups have applied to the state to start charter schools.

The new proposals include plans for a dual language school in Windham; a residential school in Hartford for middle-schoolers with an emphasis on finance and technology; a Bridgeport school that would serve students with autism and others with language disorders; and a performing arts school in Danbury.

The proposals come from a varied group: some from community activist groups, others from a long-established charter school organization, others from universities, or teachers or partnerships involving schools districts. Some of the groups have filed one or more application in the past.

"I was impressed by the diversity," said Debra Kurshan, the chief turnaround officer for the state Department of Education. "I was thrilled. I thought it was great."

Kurshan said she sees charter schools as one piece of the state's overall effort to turn around low-performing schools and close an achievement gap that runs along socioeconomic lines.

Bernard Thomas, executive director of the Hartford Knights Youth Organization, would like to open a boarding school for seventh and eighth graders because he has seen many students do better in that environment.

"It was the type of scenario that put them in the position not to fail," he said. "They didn't have any outside distraction. There was a mandatory study hall from seven to 10 at night."

Elsa M. Nunez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, has proposed a school for students from kindergarten through eighth grade that would deliver instruction in English and Spanish, alternating from one language to the other every two weeks. The university would run the school in collaboration with the school district.

The Urban League's Spell said its proposed charter, the Whitney Young Leadership Academy for Boys, would attempt to meet the needs of minority males whose graduation rates fall below state averages.

"Little boys of color who predominantly do not see teachers and mentors who look like them don't do as well as at schools where that is not an issue," Spell said. "That's the need we are looking to address."

Advocates for charter schools say the need for more is clear. Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter School Network, said 6,400 students are enrolled in Connecticut charter schools with as many on waiting lists to get into them.

Toll said the Achievement First academies had six applicants for every seat and, she added, the academies in Hartford and in New Haven were the top choice in the school choice lotteries.

In general, charter school students outperform their peers at neighborhood schools in Connecticut and sometimes outdo state averages on standardized tests; critics have said this is because charter schools don't take as many students with learning problems.

The state Department of Education's proposed budget contains funding for four new charter schools, but what will happen to that proposal in the legislature is uncertain. Rep. Andrew Fleischmann D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the education committee, said that "any school that has a model that helps its students achieve great academic growth is one that I believe deserves attention and support."

But, he said, "given the fiscal times, it's hard to see how the General Assembly would be finding new dollars for new charter schools."

"My goal for this year is to defend the dollars that we put into place last year for critical education initiatives," Fleischmann said. He said he is not "terribly optimistic about new investment."

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn said that although the legislature reduced the increase for charter schools in December, the schools are still receiving a 10 percent increase while average traditional public schools have been flat-funded for years.

"I'm concerned that they have become politicized," Williams said about charter schools. "I think there are some national movements and organizations that like to use certain charter schools I'm not talking about all the charter schools in Connecticut as a means of trying to discredit public education, when really we ought to be pulling in the same direction. The intent of charter schools was simply to help us improve our public schools."

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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