On their 20th anniversary, Connecticut’s charter schools deserve support

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Students at Trailblazers Academy in Stamford.

Twenty years ago this past weekend, Gov. John Rowland signed a bill into law and by doing so changed the trajectory of the lives of thousands of Connecticut children.

The bill he signed established public charter schools in the Constitution State and was a monumental step forward that has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of children, and it will continue to do so in the coming decades.

Charters represent the limitless potential public education offers to our families and communities. They were created to be an opportunity for children – especially those who are traditionally underserved and historically haven’t had more than one option – to choose a public school that’s different from the traditional educational model – something that offers an environment that fits their needs and learning style.

Charters are also intended to have greater flexibility to innovate, the freedom to nimbly take on new problems without excess red tape, and the ability to prioritize proven solutions like longer school days and more parent involvement. After using that capacity to innovate, charters share their successes and failures, allowing district, magnet, and other public schools to benefit from those efforts.

Together, those goals give public charter schools the potential to close the achievement gap. Because charters can only open in Connecticut’s lowest-performing districts, and we serve a student population that is over 85 percent Black or Hispanic, and nearly 75 percent low-income, charters have the potential to be transformative.

A charter comes with not only a great opportunity, but also a great responsibility to do right by our children and taxpayer dollars. Connecticut has taken that incredibly seriously – there are 24 charters in the state, educating over 9,000 students.

But parents are choosing charters in droves – and demand can’t keep up with supply. Last year alone, wait lists grew by 60 percent to nearly 6,000 names.

It’s no secret why parents are clamoring to get their kids into charters. Through state tests, charters have consistently outperformed their host districts in both English and math. And our schools have led on school culture and curriculum with social-emotional learning programs, restorative justice practices, integrated arts education, and more.

Charters represent unique, invaluable opportunities for our children. Some nearly two decades old, while others opened just this past fall.

We have schools like Common Ground High School, set on an urban farm in New Haven, yet serving kids who often head to the school freshman year having never planted anything in their lives. Schools like Achievement First’s Greenfield project, which is literally reinventing how to educate students on a day-to-day basis. Schools like Explorations in Winsted, serving nearly 40 percent special education students journeying from towns all across the county on reputation alone. Schools like Stamford Academy and Path Academy, each of which offers students who have struggled in the past a second chance. The list goes on… we have charters that focus on STEM, English language learners, the arts, and more.

Twenty years in, public charter schools have led the charge toward closing Connecticut’s achievement gap. They have offered a high quality education in our most challenging districts, and have shown consistently that all children, regardless of the color of their skin or how much money their parents make, can graduate high school prepared to succeed in college or a career.

We can and must build on that progress.

Charter students deserve funding security for their existing seats. And wait-listed students deserve access to more new schools. Additionally, as it stands now, charter students receive on average nearly $4,000 less in funding than kids in traditional district schools. All public school children deserve fair funding for every seat, in every school, in every town.

Twenty years from now, I believe we will have a thriving group of old, new, and potential public charter schools. I believe we’ll continue to innovate in our classrooms and communities, and improve partnerships with traditional districts to expand the reach of successful programs. And I believe we will finally, as a state and an education community, come together to fulfill our moral obligation to treat every child fairly by fixing our broken school funding system.

Connecticut, like every child in every classroom, has limitless potential. Public charter schools represent our best efforts to fulfill that potential on behalf of our kids, our state, and our future. Charters deserve unyielding support on this 20th anniversary – here’s to the next 20 years, and beyond.

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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