Connecticut education: Getting it right in the future

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The bad news for education in Connecticut is that in the state budget, which takes effect on July 1, money will be spent on charter schools for 2 percent of Connecticut children that would have been better spent on the other 98 percent of Connecticut children.

The good news is if the Connecticut legislature wants to address that kind of injustice, it now has the power to do so.

The legislature derives that power from a bill it just passed.  It is S.B. 1096 entitled “An Act Concerning Charter Schools.”

The bill passed with a vote by the Connecticut State Senate of 35-1 and with the House of Representatives voting in concurrence with the Senate. The passage of that bill gives the Connecticut legislature, for the first time, the authority to approve the formal funding of any proposed charter schools.

Previously, the appointed officials of the Connecticut State Department of Education had that authority. This change means that we as citizens, for the first time, through our elected officials, will have some say over the extending or limiting of charter schools in Connecticut. That will take place unless nefarious political shenanigans in the upcoming special session overturn the decisive vote of the legislature.

As the Connecticut Mirror reports, the two-year budget that was passed on June 3 allocates $12.4 million dollars to add about 700 seats to existing charter schools and to open two new charter schools this fall, one in Bridgeport and one Stamford, both of which are being opened despite the local boards of education voting against them.

At the same time, a group of struggling public schools, targeted for state intervention and state funding, called The Commissioner’s Network will receive $4.7 million less than they received this year. Also, 15 of our poorest public school districts will lose $3.6 million slated to extend the school day and offer summer academic programs and lose $1.6 million to help public schools transport students.  In addition, the Democratic Party’s plan to move the state towards universal preschool has been put aside because $7.2 million was cut from the planned $10 million dollar project.

For those of you who are counting, that is $12.4 million given to publicly funded, privately operated and profit-making charter schools and $17.1 million taken away from traditional public schools.

But maybe it’s not all about the money. Maybe it’s about the education. What if the student achievement gained in charter schools is worth it?  What if the trade-off pays off?

Answers to these questions can be found in a multitude of national studies which demonstrate that student achievement in charter schools and traditional public schools is pretty much the same.

Answers particular to Connecticut can be found in a report commissioned by the Connecticut State Department of Education entitled “Evaluating the Academic Performance of Choice Programs in Connecticut,” which was just released. The report compares student achievement in non-urban schools, urban schools, and the choice programs of public charter schools, magnet schools operated by districts, regional magnet schools such as those operated by CREC, and Open Choice programs in which inner-city students attend suburban schools.

The news was quite underwhelming regarding the performance of charter schools.  As Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell commented, “ In some cases, students in choice programs made greater academic gains than their peers not enrolled in these programs (students in traditional public schools), thereby closing the achievement gap, while in other cases they did not.” Sometimes students in regular old inner city public schools made more impressive gains than students in publicly funded but privately owned and managed charter schools, and sometimes students in charter schools did better.

There was no clear winner among the alternatives to traditional public schools. The report compared the growth in reading and writing at both proficient and advanced levels of students between grades 3 and 5 and between grades 6 and 8 as measured by standardized test scores.

The public charter schools actually showed a regression in proficiency in reading and writing for students between grades 3 and 5 while all other choice programs as well as traditional urban schools demonstrated growth in proficiency. Charter students also demonstrated much less growth in advanced scores of fifth graders than all other groups of students, including those in traditional urban public schools. The students in regional magnet schools showed the greatest growth in proficiency in reading and math.

The report also measured students’ growth in proficiency between grades 6 and 8. Students in charter schools and inner city students who attend school in the suburbs through the Open Choice program showed the most growth in proficiency, and students in charter schools and regional magnet schools demonstrated the most growth in eighth grade advanced scores.

So it’s a mixed bag for charter schools.

Charter schools in Connecticut, as everywhere else, have a more select population than traditional public schools: fewer students with special education needs, fewer students who have English as a second language, fewer students from impoverished homes or no homes at all, and more students who have higher base line scores than their counterparts in traditional public schools.

This Connecticut State Department of Education study acknowledged those differences and corrected for them but did not correct for other differences between the students in charter schools and students in traditional public schools.

Three factors not corrected for in the study influence student achievement. One is the dynamism or lack of it in the family structure. There is a difference between charter school parents who have had the time and energy to seek out various schooling options for their children and other parents who did not or cannot.

That family structure influences study habits and attitude towards school and provides all kinds of support for achievement.

Another factor contributing to student achievement is peer influence. Attending a charter school with other students from families who similarly value education establishes a school culture which fosters achievement.  Both the family and the peer group greatly influence the third factor: intrinsic student motivation.

Given that many more students in charter schools have the advantages of a positive family structure, a peer group that is a positive influence, and their own inner drive that many students in traditional public schools do not, it is reasonable to expect that charter school students would perform very much better than they do.  But they don’t.

The report also demonstrates that it is impossible to know if the teaching and the approach to learning in charter schools improve student achievement. The report states: “ It cannot be said with certainty that clones of these choice programs, or an exportation of specific pedagogical techniques and strategies used, will necessarily ensure similar performance success for urban students in general.”  Therefore, this report does not in any way endorse the curriculum or instruction of charter schools or make any statement about what goes on in the classrooms as being a causal factor for student achievement.

So we are back to the question:  Should we set up new publicly funded, privately managed, profit-generating charter schools at the expense of providing educational resources to a broad spectrum of Connecticut’s children? Hopefully, each Connecticut legislator in the future and each Connecticut citizen who puts legislators in office will answer:  Not on my watch.

Ultimately, it is way more than a question about one educational setting versus another one. Whether, like Jennifer Alexander, who lobbies for charter schools, you see thousands of Connecticut public school students “trapped in failing schools” or, like me, you see the possibilities for curriculum design and professional development in those schools, what we will have before us and before the Connecticut legislators in the future is a key moral question about what is the right thing for citizens in a democracy and their elected representatives to do.

That moral question is: Are not all Connecticut’s children our children, and, if they are, how will we educate them?

 

Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught middle and high school English, was a district-level administrator for English, taught university courses in English education, and was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school curricula she designed and implemented.

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