**UPDATE: On July 7, 2015, Governor Malloy signed SB 1096 into law.**
Charter schools, which have become a parallel school system in Connecticut—allowed to play by a different set of rules than those that govern traditional neighborhood public schools—are now subject to some much-needed oversight thanks to Senate Bill 1096 that passed the state House and Senate this week. With this bill legislators took important action to increase transparency of the charter school industry and require that all new charter schools are subject to General Assembly approval.
CEA has been a strong advocate of increased charter school oversight, urging the legislature to make sure choice program opportunities are provided for all children in ways that are consistent and transparent.
“Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded with our taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Edwin Vargas, a former Hartford public school teacher, during discussion on SB 1096 on the floor of the House. “This accountability and transparency bill gives us an opportunity as legislators to make sure that the hard-earned cash of the people we represent is truly going to the needs of our kids.”
The legislation takes the important step of making all records related to the administration of charter schools, including the way in which charter management organizations (CMOs) spend the public funds they receive from charter schools, subject to the Freedom of Information Act. CMOs in Connecticut have previously tried to dodge Freedom of Information requests, including one made by CEA last year.
Additional provisions of the bill include the following requirements.
- Charter schools and CMOs must submit to the State Department of Education (SDE) a certified audit statement that the SDE must post to its website.
- Charter school governing councils, members of CMOs, applicants for positions at charter schools, and contractors doing business with charter schools must submit to record checks by the Department of Children and Families and to state and national criminal history record checks.
- Charter school governing councils must complete training related to their responsibilities and shall adopt anti-nepotism and conflict of interest policies.
“I think that the oversight provisions are vigorous and will help us avoid some of the pitfalls we saw in the incident last year,” said ranking Education Committee member Rep. Gail Lavielle, referring to a case of extreme nepotism and financial misconduct at a Hartford charter school last year that prompted an FBI investigation.
The legislation also requires that the State Board of Education solicit and take into account comments by local or regional boards of education when considering proposed charter school applications.
“Comments at public hearings are important. We certainly use them here at the General Assembly to inform our work,” said Education Committee Co-Chair Rep. Andrew Fleischmann. “It has been of grave concern to many here in this chamber that there have been charters granted by the State Board of Education immediately after vociferous opposition to charter applications, which does not seem to pay proper due to the input from the public.”
“This is an important part of the bill,” agreed Lavielle. She said that charter schools play a big role in a community and need to work well with existing institutions. “It’s important to know what the community thinks.”
Charter schools will now first need to have funding approved by the legislature in order to receive final approval for a charter and begin enrolling students. The State Board of Education will only be responsible for granting an initial certificate of approval.
“The charter schools cannot and should not be accepting applications until they receive the full charter,” said Education Committee member Rep. Michael D’Agostino. He said that he and other legislators had been concerned that charter schools were putting out applications and receiving enrollment requests from hundreds of students before new schools were funded by the legislature.
D’Agostino continued, “This legislation clarifies that charter schools should not be receiving applications until they receive funding. We don’t want to see this game that was played, that I think was unfortunate, where families and children were told, ‘Hey, the General Assembly is going to cut off your funding,’ when we hadn’t even agreed to fund that charter.”