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As State Budget Crisis Looms, Voters Want Protections for Neighborhood School Funding

CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg shared results of a voter poll on charter schools with the legislature's Appropriations Committee at a hearing last night.

CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg shared results of a voter poll on charter schools with the legislature’s Appropriations Committee at a hearing last night.

Saying 3 out of 4 public schools are doing an excellent or good job, Connecticut voters (8 out of 10) want to ensure that their neighborhood public schools do not lose funding when new charter schools open in their area.

“The message from our new voter poll is clear: Voters don’t want their neighborhood schools adversely affected by charter school expansion. This should come as no surprise because neighborhood schools across Connecticut are struggling to meet escalating costs—even as the governor proposes no new Education Cost Sharing (ECS) funding for students in these schools,” said CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg.

Flat funding of ECS, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Waxenberg, especially when it comes to children facing the greatest challenges. “Significant wrap-around services that address socio-economic barriers to student success also are eliminated in the governor’s budget. Children in our neediest districts need focused attention and a continued infusion of resources. Don’t jettison their opportunities to prop up charter schools—an unnecessary expansion that is not in the public interest.”

Waxenberg continued, “Public awareness of the practices and impact of charter school management companies is growing. Wait until Bridgeport residents hear that the opening of a new charter school will divert $2.9 million from the city’s cash-starved schools. A similar analysis in Stamford shows nearly $700,000 in costs to the local board of education for the addition of one state charter school. There is no legitimate reason for Connecticut policymakers to continue to write charter school management companies a blank check.”

CEA President Sheila Cohen said, “If the campaign being waged by charter school management companies is to maintain any credibility, then it must operate in the sunshine of transparency as public schools do. Charter school operators have expanded into charter school management companies with the potential for profit, and it has gotten harder and harder to follow taxpayer funding. This is unacceptable. The state legislature must require transparency and accountability. Both are in the public interest.”

School choice is not a priority for voters when contrasted with other concerns. Instead issues of charter school transparency and accountability dominate.

Cohen emphasized, “We need to safeguard and protect our children in public charter schools as well as respect taxpayer dollars that the state is allocating to these schools. Where public funding goes, public accountability must follow.”

Charter school improvements that garner broad support among Connecticut voters include action to

  • strengthen charter school accountability and transparency,
  • improve teacher training and qualifications,
  • prevent fraud,
  • serve high-need students
  • require local boards to approve of new charter schools, and
  • ensure that neighborhood public schools are not adversely affected and continue to receive the funding and resources needed to provide students with a high-quality education.

Teacher quality and equal access matter
A significant 86 percent of voters want all public charter school teachers to meet the same standards and attain state licensing and certification just like teachers in traditional public schools. They do not want to lower the bar for charter school teachers. This proposal receives equal support (86 percent) from parents and non-parents alike.

Voters want to require charter schools to serve high-need students, such as special education students, at the same level as neighborhood public schools. More than 3 in 4 voters (76 percent) favor this proposal, including 79 percent of parents.

Local control cannot be ignored
A majority of voters (79 percent) favor a proposal requiring that before any new charter school is approved, an analysis must be conducted on the impact the school will have on neighborhood public schools.

Nearly three quarters of voters (73 percent) support local control proposals requiring a charter school approved by the state of Connecticut to also be approved by their local board of education before it can open.

“Allocating millions more dollars to charter school management companies, as proposed in the state budget, is anything but wise at this time of diminishing public resources,” said Waxenberg. “Public trust must be rebuilt before any new public dollars can be designated for charter schools. Lawmakers should be focusing on fully funding traditional public schools and decreasing the huge shortfall in state education funding for our neighborhood schools.”

Transparency, accountability, and protecting taxpayer funds
The state currently allocates more than $100 million to charter school management companies for annual operating expenses, as well as tens of millions of dollars for charter school construction and technology.

“In many cases these funds are sent directly to charter school management companies that are not held to the same accountability standards as neighborhood public schools,” said Waxenberg. “Actions must be taken to monitor charters for potential fraud, waste, and mismanagement.”

According to the poll, voters and parents overwhelmingly support change:

  • A near unanimous 88 percent support requiring companies and organizations that manage charter schools to open board meetings to parents and the public, similar to public school board meetings. This proposal has bipartisan support (95percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Independents, 85 percent of Republicans).
  • The majority of voters (88 percent) called for state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances to detect fraud, waste, or abuse of public funds.
  • A majority of voters (81 percent) and parents (86 percent) support requiring companies and organizations that manage charter schools to release to parents and the public how they spend taxpayer money, including their annual budgets and contracts.
  • More than three quarters of voters want the state to stop the creation of new charter schools if state officials do not prevent fraud and mismanagement.

Other findings
Lack of school choice concerns very few voters. Top concerns include the over-emphasis on testing, a lack of parental involvement, and cuts to school funding as the biggest problems facing K-through-12 education. Lack of school choice ranks dead last on their list of concerns.

Reflecting on the history of the charter school movement in Connecticut, Waxenberg said, “CEA proudly represents three of the state’s first charter schools. We continue to support the goal of charter schools envisioned in 1996 when Connecticut’s law was first passed: to serve as educational laboratories (limited in number and scale) that could develop and share new best practices with the traditional public school sector. However, it is important to recognize that the original legislation sought to prevent creating a parallel system of education. It limited charter school enrollment to 1,000 students statewide. And it did not envision the creation of charter chains and charter school management organizations distorting the original intent of the law.”

Methodology
The Connecticut poll of 500 registered voters, which was conducted January 29-31, 2015, has a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level. The poll was conducted by GBA Strategies of Washington, D.C.

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