Don't stall charter school progress in Connecticut

Public school teachers and the unions representing them appear threatened by the growing role of charter schools in Connecticut’s educational system. Looking for help from its friends in the legislature, organized labor is pushing for a two-year moratorium on opening new charter schools in the state. Democratic lawmakers, eager to appease the unions and looking for ways to limit spending in another tough fiscal year, will be tempted to go along with the idea.

That would be a mistake.

Parents confronted with poor performance in urban public schools are looking for choices and the independently managed charter schools are providing them. Charter schools have greater freedom to innovate in their approach to curriculum, the structuring of the learning environment, and organization of the school day.

Students want to be in these schools, having sought entry and prevailed in a lottery system that does not discriminate based on academic ability. The Connecticut Department of Education reports that 86 percent of charter elementary schools and 83 percent of charter high schools outperformed their host districts in 2013 on standardized tests.

The charter schools serve as educational laboratories, providing ideas on best practices for traditional public schools to emulate. Charter schools were leaders in the use of a data-driven instructional approach, now widely accepted as a best practice.

The pro-charter Coalition for Every Child, a movement of parents, students, educators, community members, faith leaders and education reform advocates, estimates 3,600 Connecticut students remain on waiting lists hoping to gain entry into a charter school.

So why is there opposition to continuing the expansion of charter schools?

There are 21 charter schools licensed by the state operating in Connecticut, including two of the best in our local area — the ISAAC School in New London for grades 6-8 (Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication) and the Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich, serving pre-kindergarten through grade 8. The state’s charter schools educate about 8,000 students. Two new charter schools have received state approval — one each in Bridgeport and Stamford — but they await funding and could be blocked by the moratorium.

Only a few of these schools are unionized, in contrast to the universal unionization in traditional public schools, a fact that does not endear them to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or the Connecticut Education Association (CEA).

The unions and other critics are also concerned about public schools competing for state funds with charter schools.

“The unwarranted expansion of charter schools is diverting sorely needs funds away from neighborhood public schools,” wrote Sheila Cohen, president of the CEA, in a recent commentary published by The Connecticut Mirror.

Rather than blocking the competition, perhaps public school teachers and administrators could take it as a challenge to improve performance and reduce the desire among parents and students to gravitate to charter schools.

In any event, the charters arguably infuse a district with more money by supplying $11,000 in state funding for each charter student while not reducing the district’s state Education Cost Sharing Grant.

In her commentary, Ms. Cohen contends that the state should require better auditing of charter schools. The legislation calling for a moratorium also assures that charter schools would be subject to the state’s Freedom of Information law. On the need for greater transparency, we agree. But it is not necessary to block new schools to impose these requirements.

Those calling for a pause also maintain there is not enough study to verify the Connecticut charter schools are working. The more Connecticut-specific data in that regard the better. We note, however, that a recent Stamford University national study found charters were able to “create dramatically higher levels of academic growth to their most disadvantaged students.”

Looming over the debate is the recent scandal involving the Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford. The Hartford Courant disclosed that the CEO of the management group was a convicted felon who had lied about having a doctoral degree. Its reporting also uncovered extensive nepotism.

“When I look at the mess that we had in Hartford … that tells me there are some real concerns,” testified AFT Connecticut President Melodie Peters in urging the legislature to adopt the moratorium.

It is better to address those concerns with greater transparency, not by blocking new charter schools.

The legislature should strip the moratorium language out of the legislation and instead make the charter schools subject to the FOI and require more stringent auditing.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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