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Charter, magnet schools present challenge to communities

Groton - At a time when the state faces a "tremendous growth" of magnet and charter schools, the relationships between the schools and local boards of education remain in flux and are sometimes at odds over their responsibilities toward students.

And, as more and more students attend the schools, state policies governing the schools also are evolving.

Those were messages of a seminar Saturday that provided an overview of the schools and also hinted at future issues that could be played out in court or the General Assembly.

Education attorneys Mark J. Sommaruga and Zachary D. Schurin of Pullman & Comley spoke to nearly 20 educators at Mystic Marriott at the annual conference of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

The seminar was one of about 35 workshops held at the two-day conference, which ran from Friday morning through Saturday afternoon, for school board members and administrators.

Connecticut has more than 50 interdistrict magnet schools and 20 charter schools, with plans for more in the works. Currently, 1.3 percent of public school students in the state attend a charter school, according to the presentation.

State charter schools are public schools that operate independently of local school boards and are granted their charter by the state, said Schurin. Another type of charter school, a local charter school, requires approval by both the state and local boards of education. The only local charter school in the state is in New Haven.

Interdistrict magnet schools, which apply for state operating grants, are intended to promote diversity and offer a special curriculum, according to the presentation.

A large part of the impetus for the magnet school movement dates back to a 1996 state Supreme Court decision that ruled all children have the right to a "substantially equal educational opportunity ... that is not substantially impaired by racial and ethnic isolation," Schurin said.

In response to the case, the state enacted new laws to encourage interdistrict magnet schools, as well as an "Open Choice" program to allow students in certain urban areas to attend suburban schools, to address "the issue of racial and economic isolation," he said.

Later agreements led to the expansion of the number of interdistrict magnet schools, according to the presentation, and charter schools also became part of the reform movement.

Some policies surrounding magnet schools and charter schools, as well as the schools' relationships with local schools boards, are continuing to evolve,according to the presentation.

One evolving issue is the lottery system for students to gain a spot at charter schools. Schurin said some charter schools require students to opt into the lottery system,while others automatically add all students within a district into the pool - unless they opt out -to avoid bias in the selection process.

In addition, in August the state announced stricter oversight of charter schools. The new requirements, from mandatory background checks for staff and managers to monitoring for adherence to Freedom of Information laws, following allegations this summer at a charter school in Hartford, the Jumoke Academy, Schurin said. Those allegations include that the school misspent funds and that the school's CEO embellished credentials.

Sommaruga also cited some instances in which local school boards and charter schools have disagreed in hearing cases for individual student performance issues. He stressed the importance of communication between the local school board and charter school and said there are times when both will be held responsible.

Saturday's conference came at a time when the state Board of Education is proposing eight more charter schools, as reported last week by the Connecticut Mirror and noted in the presentation.

The presentation pointed to the 2012 Education Reform Act that says the state can approve no more than four state charter schools between July 1, 2012, and July 1, 2017, unless two of those schools provide "dual language programs or other models focusing on language acquisition for English language learners."

Schurin said there is the possibility some local districts could raise this statement in the reform act as an argument to challenge a proposed charter school, but he did not say the case would necessarily be successful.

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

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