Connecticut’s charter schools stronger than ever

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2015 was a landmark year for public charter schools in Connecticut. A record 9,000 children are now enrolled in charters and two new schools opened in Bridgeport and Stamford, bringing the state’s total to 24. And a new study shows that accountability measures recently signed into law make Connecticut’s charter law stronger than ever.

During the past legislative session, Connecticut legislators and Gov. Dannel Malloy made some smart charter-related steps, including the passage of Public Act 15-239, which codified a number of existing accountability practices for public charter schools.

In just one year’s time, we’ve made great progress. Every year, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) reviews each state’s charter laws and how strong they are, and this year, NACSA ranked Connecticut as 21st in the nation – a big jump from 2014, when Connecticut received one of the lowest scores in the country.

The new law solidifies public charter schools as the most accountable public schools in Connecticut.

How? Primarily by adding specific, measurable requirements around each school’s “charter” – the contract they have with the state that allows them to operate a school. The new law ensures each public charter school’s contract includes academic and organizational performance goals and indicators. The annual reports charters have always submitted now include an update on how they’re meeting those goals, and those goals are now a key consideration when the state decides, as they do every time a school is up for renewal, whether to renew a school’s charter.

For many years, public charter schools and the state have set and monitored progress on academic and organizational performance goals. These changes improve that process. We supported these updates and believe state leaders made smart choices through this new law.

This is good for kids because it helps ensure that every public charter school in the state is high quality and stays high quality. If a public charter school falls behind and isn’t doing right by children, the State Board of Education closes the school.

In the nearly 20 years since Connecticut passed its charter law, eight charter schools have closed, which is the ultimate accountability measure. NECSN will continue to support increasing the number high-quality public charter schools in Connecticut, just as we support closing charters that demonstrate failure.

There’s still a lot of work to do to make the Connecticut charter law even better.

For instance, the new law modified the approval process so that the State Board of Education, which is still legally the charter “authorizer,” may grant only initial certificates of approval to new charters. The General Assembly must “finalize” the approval by appropriating funds for that school.

That change is symbolic, as the legislature has always funded charters separately from other public schools. But it’s also a rejection of both common sense and national best practices. It reinforces the role that politics plays in process of funding public charter schools, limits the number of schools that can open or grow, and creates additional unpredictability and uncertainty for schools and their families.

It’s absurd. No other state in the nation funds public charters schools this way.

Rather than remaining under Connecticut’s unique, nonsensical system, we should move toward a more simplified, predictable approval and appropriation mechanism. Every high quality charter school that is approved by the State Board of Education should be automatically funded, not subject to a separate state grant.

The recent progress on accountability does not mean we should stop working to further strengthen it and make it the best in the nation. In part, that should mean funding equality for public charter school students, who receive thousands of dollars less per-child in support than their peers. It should also mean codifying better standards approval so the experts on our State Board of Education and at the State Department of Education, not politicians, are in charge of the approval process.

Connecticut’s public charter schools have a proven record of success. They are helping more black, Hispanic, and low-income children graduate with the skills they need for college and careers. And thankfully, with the support of the public charter school community, we now have policies on the books that rightly focus on holding charter schools accountable for those outcomes.

Moving forward, we must pay close attention to how public charter school students are treated compared to their peers. State leaders should read NACSA’s study on national charter laws and look to other states on how to bring approval process up to par. And they should also applaud themselves for the accountability measures passed this June.

Jeremiah Grace is the state director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network.

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