Connecticut charter schools not really getting a funding increase

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Let’s set the record straight. Public charter school students do not receive a funding increase in Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed budget. They will still receive the same state per-pupil grant that they have received for several years. Put simply: all public schools are flat-funded across the board.

A recent story by the CT Mirror suggested otherwise, and we want to ensure the facts are front and center.

Any confusion about this may be because of how public charter schools are funded. Rather than the block grants currently used to fund traditional school districts regardless of their enrollment, public charter schools are funded based on how many students they educate – a number which is tightly regulated by the State Department of Education. So, the governor’s proposed budget is based on the state’s projected enrollment for public charter schools next year, and when that number goes up, so does the state’s financial obligation.

It’s true that charter enrollment is expected to grow next year, but it’s for a good reason. That growth is built into Connecticut’s public charter school model, and as things stand, it’s the only way to make charters work in the Constitution State.

A few recent examples paint a clear picture why.

Let’s look at Stamford Charter School for Excellence (SCSE). The school, which is modeled after the national Blue Ribbon Award winning Bronx Charter School for Excellence, opened last fall for pre-kindergarten through first grade. For more than 100 Stamford children and their families, SCSE represents access to an excellent education.

Those SCSE students don’t just sign up for first grade – they expect the school to grow with them to fifth grade. That growth is built into SCSE’s charter because they could not afford to open an entire elementary school on Day One.

Primarily, that’s because public charter schools receive significantly less public funding per-child than their traditional district peers – on average, nearly $4,000 less. But it’s also because charters are the only public schools that don’t have consistent and reliable funding for their facilities. That means rent, repairs or upgrades to classrooms, and critical infrastructure spending like fixing a leaky roof, often have to come from the significantly diminished per-pupil funding public charter schools receive from the state. Unpredictable and inadequate state bonding has not met these needs for all schools.

For SCSE, that meant they couldn’t afford to turn the third floor of their building into classrooms for second and third graders in their first year of operation; the building has to grow with the students.

New Haven’s Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA), which opened in 2014, has the same issues as SCSE. They currently serve grades K-2 but will outgrow their current building, which was all they could afford at first, before their kids are supposed to graduate from the school.

BTWA is a true example of a community school. They had broad and strong community support, and have a long list of children waiting for access to attend the school year-after-year.

The students who love BTWA and expect to graduate from the school in the future have been promised that right – but it will only happen if the school is able to grow and serve new grades.

Other Connecticut charters are facing similar dilemmas. The funding proposed in the Governor’s budget is critical to their survival. And the proposal doesn’t even begin to address the $4,000 gap in funding between charters and district schools. But as we all know, costs for teacher salaries, healthcare and education programs are rising steadily, all while schools’ per pupil funding is held flat.

Both charters and districts are feeling the crunch.

That challenge for charters is compounded by a funding disparity that has existed for years and it is growing. In fact, the $11,000 per child per year that charters currently receive is not only far behind what district kids receive, it’s even below the state’s $11,525 target minimum for district students through the Education Cost Sharing formula.

It’s also important to remember that charters are the only public schools forced to exist primarily off of state funding — magnets can charge tuition to districts and traditional school districts are supported by local taxes. That’s why year after year, when per pupil funding is flat and costs increase, public charter schools in Connecticut come to the State Capitol asking our leaders to close the funding gap.

Until we fix that system, we need to keep up our obligations to children counting on these schools for their education, whether it’s a child expecting to have a 2nd grade next year or a student awarded a new seat off the waitlist.

Whether or not we close the funding gap this year, state leaders must follow through on promises made to public charter school students. But following through on their IOUs does not mean public charter schools are seeing a funding increase. To say so is simply untrue and just fans the flames of the district-charter divide solely for political gain.

Like other schools, public charter schools are feeling the pain and already face tough decisions about how to spend what scarce dollars they have. Because of that shared reality, we stand ready to band together to remedy all of the inequities in the state’s school funding system — for all public schools. But we can’t do it if we succumb to the spin and misinformation of those who want to divide us.

Jeremiah Grace is Connecticut State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the non-profit membership association for public charter schools in Connecticut.

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