School funding inequity is affecting charter schools, too

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Connecticut recently saw tens of thousands of voters come out on primary day. People who’ve never voted before or haven’t voted in years were compelled to cast a ballot.

On the Democratic side, the two candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are talking about income inequality, with Bernie calling it “worse than at any time since the late 1920s.” Nowhere is this a more true than in Connecticut where the income gap between the haves and have-nots is, as the Republican frontrunner might say: HUGE.

Wealthy families can send their kids to prestigious prep schools like Choate, Loomis, or Hotchkiss while families who don’t have the same resources are often relegated to the district schools in their cities and towns, even if they’re not working for their kids.

However, for some 9,000 Connecticut children, there is another option – the option of a public charter school education.

But here’s the problem. Connecticut’s education funding system is broken – with charter school students receiving on average $4,000 less in funding than their peers in district schools. And this disparity in funding hurts low-income children of color most because those are the majority of the students charters in Connecticut serve.

Public charter school leaders went into this work knowing they’d be unfairly underfunded, but they were up for the challenge. They have worked incredibly hard to make smart long-term financial decisions and be good stewards of taxpayer support.

That responsibility made a huge difference as Connecticut’s financial crisis forced flat-funding on all public schools, despite rising costs. But lack of funding equity has caught up with charters and our children are the ones who will pay the price if we don’t fix Connecticut’s broken system of education funding.

Park City Prep in Bridgeport, for example, has had to cut back on intervention services for the students who are struggling most. That additional support is critical for a school like Park City Prep, which starts in fifth grade and takes in kids every year who are far behind in reading and math. Thanks in part to their intervention programs, the school has received recognition from the state for its ability to bring their students up to grade level. That groundbreaking work is already threatened, and if the school can’t afford the educators skilled in interventional work, it will disappear altogether.

Side by Side Charter School in Norwalk has made similar sacrifices. As one of the oldest charters in the state, their school building is getting old. The facility, especially the middle school annex, is in dire need of repairs, but charters are rarely eligible for facilities support from the state. So, the school has saved for years to improve that space. But rising costs and continued flat-funding will negate all of the strides Side by Side has carefully made, forcing them to use those savings for necessities like educators and healthcare. Eventually, after running through their nest-egg, the inability to pay for rising costs will devastate their ability to offer the high-quality education their students deserve.

We’re fast approaching the point where those schools and other charters across the state won’t be to afford these necessities, because the $11,000 they receive per-child is simply not enough to cover rising structural costs.

Still, families are flocking to charters because they are demonstrating great success for students who historically haven’t been served well by the system. In fact, our waitlists grew 60 percent last year, and are now nearly 6,000 names long.

Charters may be educating kids who don’t come from the most affluent communities, but on average charter students do better than their local peers in both English and math, proving that race, ZIP code and income don’t determine how successful a child will be in school.

But that success will be short-lived if lawmakers don’t take a stand and build a system that treats charters students and all of their peers fairly.

Connecticut is already spending a great deal on public education. In fact, as NPR recently showed, the vast majority of Connecticut already spends far more than the national average on public education. Considering our state’s current fiscal crisis, that support will likely not increase anytime soon.

So we need to face reality: we only have so much to spend on public education and right now we’re failing miserably at equitably distributing that funding to all public school students.

We have a moral obligation to treat all children fairly, and that means funding education based on students and their learning needs rather than based on the type of school they attend or who has the most friends at the Capitol in Hartford.

Every family deserves the opportunity to choose the public school that fits their child’s needs – while safely knowing their child won’t be funded any differently if they choose an ELL focused public charter school, a STEM magnet school, or the traditional district school assigned to them by their ZIP code.

If the turnout at the polls last week tells us anything, it’s that people are fed up with the status quo. They want to see a brighter future and one of the best ways to ensure that is to provide all children with fair funding and access to great schools.

It’s time for Connecticut lawmakers to fix this problem – our kids don’t have time to wait. The time to act is now.

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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