HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut Board of Education has approved more than 1,000 additional charter school seats for the coming school year, a 12 percent increase as a new education law takes effect, changing the rules governing the alternative schools.
Demand is growing in Connecticut for charter school education, with more than 3,700 students on waiting lists, according to the Northeast Charter Schools Network.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed legislation last month changing the process for approving charter schools and, supporters say, improving their transparency. But one critic said the new law could inject politics into decisions to open new schools.
The increase in the number of seats, to more than 9,000 in the state, is a “pretty decent increase,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It lines up with healthy growth in communities around the country.”
Demand nationally is partly fueled by parents who are dissatisfied with the curriculum offered to their children and are looking for “better options,” he said.
“Traditional public schools work well for most kids, but there need to be options for students who are traditionally underserved,” Ziebarth said.
Youngsters from low-income families and minority communities tend to be served by charter schools, he said.
Connecticut’s new law requires increased financial disclosures, background checks for some charter school employees and an annual report describing progress in goals set in the school’s charter.
Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said the changes put charter schools on a “more level playing field” with other schools.
Unions are wary of charter schools, concerned that state government will divert funding from other schools. “We are looking for more equitable funding for public schools,” Cohen said.
Key changes, however, focus on the state’s approval procedures. The state Board of Education is now authorized to grant applicants for charter schools’ initial certificate of approval rather than grant charters as previously permitted.
The board may set conditions for an initial certificate’s approval, and the initial certificate does not become a charter until the legislature budgets money for the charter school.
State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said lawmakers acted in response to allegations of inadequate background checks and financial irregularities and a claim of an exemption to the open records law by a Bridgeport charter school management company. The legislature also changed the approval process in response to a marketing campaign for a charter school before approvals and funding were in place, he said.
“Those of us in the Assembly thought it was unfair pressure,” Fleischmann said. “It was misleading the public.”
Matt O’Connor, a spokesman for the labor union AFT Connecticut, said the new law is a “big improvement.”
“The decision-making on funding is the rightful responsibility of the legislature,” he said.
Lizanne Cox, director of Common Ground High School, a public charter school in New Haven, told lawmakers the law threatens to bring politics into the process by handing the authority to the legislature.
“It would put the decision to renew charter schools in the hands of the Connecticut General Assembly, rather than the state Department of Education — adding politics and divisiveness to a process that should be in the hands of community members and educational professionals,” she said.
Charter schools have grown “despite being systematically underfunded” by the state, she said.
Regardless of new rules and tighter restrictions, Connecticut’s charter schools have been on a steady rise since they were first approved in 1996, giving backers reason to cheer.
“We are slowly but surely growing,” said Jeremiah Grace, state director of the Northeast Charter Schools Network.
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