To date, lawmakers have yet to produce a budget that fairly supports charter public school growth, especially at schools like ours. We opened our doors in September 2013 with students in grades PreK through 1. And like many charter schools, when the state approved our charter, it also promised our families that the school would grow one grade per year until we reach full capacity in September 2020. By then, we plan to be a PreK-8 school with a projected enrollment of 355 students exclusively from within the city of Waterbury. Now that growth is in jeopardy.
But first let me explain why our existence is crucial to the families we serve.
When our third graders took the SBAC for the first time in June of 2016, their scores reflected exactly what we believed would happen — our students soared. Our kids performed in the top 10 percent statewide for third graders in both English language arts and in math. Brass City was also the highest performing charter school in the state. We were also impressed with the performance of our third and fourth graders on the most recent SBAC, where they outperformed Waterbury district schools in both ELA and math.
Remember, this is in Waterbury, a district that has been in the bottom 10 percent of all districts statewide in both math and ELA performance on the SBAC exams for the past two years, as well as the bottom 10 percent in graduation rates for 2015 and 2016.
While the performance of our kids may surprise some, it came as no surprise to us!
At Brass City Charter School, we believe in a shared mission. That is, to “provide a rigorous academic and holistic social-emotional learning program that will eliminate the achievement gap for underserved students.”
Our educators and students breathe this motto every single day. Our kids deserve fairness from our lawmakers, and of the opportunity to stay with and grow with the school that they love.
Here’s where our lawmakers fall short in ensuring our students are afforded fairness.
A student at Brass City Charter School and a student within a Waterbury District School have one thing in common: they are BOTH public school students. Yet, our students and our families are the ones who have to beg before lawmakers in Hartford year after year in order to make sure their education will be fairly funded. It should be a given, just like any other public school educating public school children.
Waterbury district schools, which are already underfunded as compared to suburban districts and even as compared to other large urban districts, received $15,214 per pupil in 2015-16 from a combination of state and local funding. But picture this: Under Connecticut’s current educational funding system, charter public schools receive their funding through a wholly separate line item in the state budget. And for the past three years, charters like ours have been flat-funded at $11,000 per pupil per year. Many suburban districts with declining enrollments over the same time period actually received overall increases in funding from the state, even though they spend in excess of $25,000 per pupil!
For charter schools, the $11,000 per pupil allotment doesn’t account for additional services, such as special education, transportation and a school nurse. Fortunately, these services are provided to our school by the Waterbury district. Notwithstanding the provision of these services, we still are funded less than Waterbury district schools.
Furthermore, charter public schools must pay for rent for our buildings and/or debt service out of our $11,000 per pupil allotment. Because of their district school status, every dollar of Waterbury’s $15,214 can go towards classroom instruction and students. For district school systems like Waterbury, the state foots the bill for the bulk of facilities development costs. Meanwhile, charter schools like ours must access the bulk of our facilities costs on our own dime.
It’s no secret that Connecticut’s methods of funding public education are flawed, broken and unfair to kids across the state. But being this far into the school year without a budget in place only makes a bad situation worse. Right now, the only budget that has managed to make its way past both chambers is the Republican budget which was aided along the way by eight Democrats who voted in favor of it.
We can’t imagine these lawmakers intended to further harm our schools and our kids. But had it not been vetoed by the governor and instead signed into law, that budget would’ve dealt a swift and painful blow to real kids and real families.
Under that plan, charters wouldn’t have received the funding necessary to support our growth over the next few years. This would’ve translated into a $2 million cut to charter public schools when you take into account our collective plans to grow. For us, that means our oldest kids who planned to stay with our growing school would have been forced back into the very schools they left. Not to mention, year after year we have more kids on our waitlist than we are able to serve.
Until a fair budget is passed, our kids could still be in harm’s way. Lawmakers still have the chance to do the right thing. That is, to include all public school kids under a fair and equitable funding formula, and to enact a final budget that fairly funds all public school kids, including those at charter schools.
We know that this has been an especially challenging year. But charter schools have historically enjoyed bipartisan support, and we need that to continue for the sake of all of Connecticut’s kids. So once and for all, lawmakers, do exactly what we ask our students to do every single day — don’t stop until the work is done. Now sooner than later. We cannot wait any longer.
Barbara Ruggiero, Ph.D, is Executive Director and Andy Sternlieb is Chairperson of the Brass City Charter School in Waterbury.