A bill changing how the state approves charter school applications, and also requiring a new level of transparency on the schools and their management organizations, is on its way to the governor’s desk.
The original version of the bill would have placed a moratorium on new charter schools, but that language was removed by the Education Committee in March after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he wouldn’t support a moratorium.
Malloy has further stymied charter school opponents in the legislature by insisting that funding for two new charters be included in the budget, but opponents appear to have been appeased by the inclusion of more money for public schools in the budget, which was still being negotiated late Tuesday.
The version of the bill that passed both chambers of the General Assembly on Tuesday requires full disclosure of records under the Freedom of Information Act by both charter schools and their management organizations, which are private organizations that operate on public funding.
The bill also changes how new charter schools are to be approved going forward, removing some of that authority from the state Department of Education and placing it in the hands of the legislature.
Under the measure, rather than the state Department of Education granting charters, the department will be empowered to grant applicants an “initial certificate,” but the charter will not be granted until the legislature approves its funding in a budget bill and the governor signs the bill.
“This bill changes the role of the state Board of Education from the granting of charters to the granting of initial certificates,” state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, told the House on Tuesday. “We do not place any limitations or ceilings on the number of initial certificates that may be approved by the state Board of Education. But the number of charters that will happen in the state will now be clearly governed and limited by the amount of funding that the state of Connecticut and this General Assembly deems appropriate for said purposes.”
Jennifer Alexander, CEO of the education reform advocacy group ConnCAN, was unhappy with that particular change.
“This bill exacerbates the fact that the educational futures of children who are currently enrolled in or waiting to attend a high-quality charter school depend entirely on the 187 members of the General Assembly,” Alexander said in a statement emailed to reporters. “This will leave students unsure as to whether they’ll continue to have access to a great school each year. In part, this response to charter authorizing reflects the broken way that Connecticut funds our schools. Connecticut is the only state in the country that funds charter schools through a separate line item and does not ensure equitable charter funding.”
Jeremiah Grace of the Northeast Charter Schools Network also panned the legislation, saying the legislature missed an opportunity to “meaningfully” improve the state’s charter law, opting instead for a “mish-mosh of proposals that fail to move the needle.”
Grace also said his organization does not support measures “that unfairly target non-profit charter support organizations with harassing document requests and public smear campaigns. Nor do we support the creation of an unnecessary ‘initial certificate of approval’ process for new charter schools that only erodes the state Board of Education’s authority to make educational decisions outside the politics of the statehouse.”
One charter organization, the Coalition for Every Child, described the legislation in positive terms:
“Increased accountability is a hallmark of the charter school movement, and this bill takes us forward in a productive way,” Kara Niedhardt, a spokesperson for the coalition, said. “However, there is still much work to do when it comes to the process of approving new charters, and we look forward to continuing that conversation over the months and years ahead.”
The legislation also adds new factors for the state Department of Education to include in its criteria for new charter applications, including better planning with respect to the distribution of charters to more communities that need them around the state.
“We have districts in the state of Connecticut that are among the lowest performing that have never been considered for a charter school, and other districts that have a proliferation of charter schools,” Fleischmann, who co-chairs the Education Committee, said. “That’s not particularly equitable. It makes sense for the state Board of Education to think about the achievement gap as it pertains to the entire state.”
The legislation also adds a requirement for the department to consider public comment before approving specific applications, and charters also will be required to share successful teaching techniques with public schools.
“Comments made at a public hearings are important,” Fleischmann said. “We certainly use them here at the General Assembly to inform our work. 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. At a minimum one would expect the state Board of Education to do as we do. Namely, after a public hearing, to pause, to reflect, to absorb all of the public testimony, and to take it into account in making a decision, which would now be about an initial certificate as opposed to a charter.”
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, spoke in favor of the legislation.
“The oversight provisions are rigorous and will help avoid some of the pitfalls we saw in the incident last year,” Lavielle said in reference to a scandal last year at Jumoke Academy and its management company, the Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE). The Hartford Courant reported that Michael Sharpe, the leader of the school and its management organization, had an undisclosed criminal record and had hired people with criminal records as well as family members.
Lavielle lauded the bill as it addresses the lack of transparency that led to the problems at FUSE and said the bill will give the Education Department “the necessary leeway to continue to consider new charters in a thoughtful manner, to integrate the input of the community, and to make sure that charters schools fit into the larger strategic plan for education in the state.”
Fleischmann said they included the transparency language because “we saw in the last year that the greater autonomy and flexibility that we have given to charter schools have led at least one charter school and charter management organization to misuse public funds. So rather than see taxpayer funds misused, we’ve set up some systems to make sure that we have proper oversight, accountability, transparency, and randomized audits.”
Speaking on behalf of the state’s largest teacher union, AFT Connecticut President Melodie Peters also celebrated the passage of the bill.
“The Connecticut General Assembly tonight took an important step toward establishing and implementing stronger frameworks for charter school transparency, accountability and student outcomes,” Peters wrote in a statement. “State lawmakers responded to parents and educators who expect more oversight of schools operated by charter management organizations (CMOs) with public dollars. Once signed into law, the bill rightly empowers the General Assembly with final consent in the charter approval process, specifically with regards to funding new schools run by CMOs.
“This will significantly strengthen the legislature’s proper role of budgetary responsibility, particularly when it comes to making choices about how to most effectively allocate educational resources,” Peters said. “Passage of this legislation signals the potential for a new era in which all schools in Connecticut abide by the same set of rules. And it marks a real opportunity for CMOs and their backers to restore the public trust they have lost in the wake of the Jumoke/FUSE scandal.”