Proposals to overhaul charter school law could negatively impact local schools
In its race to meet a looming deadline to apply for a competitive federal grant, the State Board of Education adopted a series of legislative proposals to overhaul how Connecticut’s charter schools are funded – proposals that are neither realistic nor reasonable and that could ultimately siphon money from communities for traditional public schools.
The proposed revisions were adopted at the board’s meeting yesterday so they could be included in the state’s application for the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant that is due January 19. The proposals, which would require approval by state legislators, include increasing the per-pupil grant for charter schools to a comparable statewide average rate, lifting caps on charter school enrollments, allowing priority school districts to form independently governed local charter schools, and revising state laws that limit funding for charter schools.
More ominous for local school budgets is that state board members has kept alive a proposal to revise the funding model for charter schools to require districts to pay a set tuition rate for each child from the district enrolled in a charter school. This proposal and the increase in the per-pupil grant for charter schools that SBE adopted were the two revised funding models for charter schools that were competing for adoption by SBE.
However, instead of rejecting the “money follows the child” model for funding charter schools, SBE will continue looking at how it could transition to this method of funding at special meeting on January. Enactment of such a proposal – which has been pushed by a private company that runs several of Connecticut’s state charter schools – would drain money from local school budgets.
Currently, the state provides $9,300 per pupil directly to state charter schools, with no local contribution. In an attempt to create “parity” with traditional local schools, SBE is seeking to increase the per pupil grant to $10,306 — an amount equivalent to the average adjusted net current expenditure per pupil.
CEA Government Relations Director Mark Waxenberg says SBE’s proposals seem to assume that traditional public schools are adequately funded – even when there is abundant evidence that this is not true. Additionally, there will be a 14 percent hole in the state’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) program once federal stimulus funds evaporate in two years.
“That is $541 million over two years – more than half a billion dollars that the state would need to find in its budget for Connecticut’s local public schools,” says Waxenberg, who questions why the state needs a new concept to compare expenditures between traditional schools and charter schools.
“The per-pupil expenditures in an overwhelming majority of charter schools already surpass the $10,306 parity target, so there appears to be no need to make such a change.”
He adds that SBE members are ignoring a critical policy decision made when the charter school law was enacted in 1996. “State lawmakers wanted to ensure that charter schools and public schools were on equal financial footing. That’s why they decided it was in the public’s best interest that the state fund charters at the student ‘foundation level’ established in the ECS grant.”
Waxenberg said the proposal to increase the per-pupil expenditure by $1,000 per student in all the charter schools in the state would cost the state more than $5 million, raising the total state budget allocation for charters to more than $50 million. “With growth, it might approach a $100 million price tag in the future,” he said.
Waxenberg says the proposals to increase per-pupil funding do not take into consideration that under current law, charter schools do not pay for transportation, special education costs, and nursing services. These costs are all borne by the city/town in which the charter is located.
“If the state expects local school districts to take over the fiscal responsibility for charters that are now borne by the state this would have enormous – and negative –consequences. This cost shifting would create huge financial hardships for local school districts. Local districts immediately would lose more than $17 million from their local budgets – school budgets that thousands and thousands of schoolchildren depend on for quality education.”
Waxenberg adds that in subsequent years, the situation would get even worse. “We cannot expect to place the lion’s share of responsibility for charters on the shoulders of local taxpayers.”
CEA also has serious concerns, he says, about the proposal to allow priority school districts to create charter schools with independent governing bodies and contractors, said Waxenberg. “This appears to be nothing more than a way to privatize our public schools, and it concerns us deeply.”
Proposals to rewrite state statute concerning enrollment caps granting charters regardless of available funding appropriations is “dangerous and confusing” because it seeks to remove phrases and wording that are consistent with important education statutes.
“This proposal raises a long list of issues connected with accountability and statutory safeguards. These are the same kind of issues that the state auditors recently raised,” says Waxenberg.
CEA embraced the reform potential of charter schools when it worked with state legislators to create the 1996 law. CEA then helped to establish the first unionized charter school in the state, Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich. CEA recently pioneered another reform approach known as CommPACT schools.
“CEA would never underestimate the value of charter schools as laboratories of innovation. At the same time, we also must be mindful of solutions – systemic reform that can be nurtured in all local school districts – that promote high-quality education for all of the students in our state. CEA strongly supports proposals that enhance excellence in education in all public schools. However, in our view, SBE’s proposals are not realistic or responsible options to improve education.”