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Cap On Charter Schools Holding Students Back

January 23, 2006
By Nelson Smith

Imagine if you couldn't read this sentence. Where would you be now?

When Elm City College Preparatory School, a public charter school in New Haven, opened in the fall of 2004, only 26 percent of its incoming K-8 students could read at or above grade level. Unfortunately, they are not alone. Many of Connecticut's public schools serving low-income students have similar results - with devastating implications for their students' opportunities later in life.

The partnership of parents, teachers and students at Elm City were determined to do something different, and committed themselves to turning things around. And they did.

By May 2005, Elm City had accomplished an educational wonder: 96 percent of its students were now reading at or above grade level, an astounding increase of 70 percentage points in only one school year. The students not only feel accomplished, but their sense of hope and opportunity for their future has been restored.

But, now in its second year of operation, Elm City is already bumping up against Connecticut's state-imposed enrollment cap of 250-300 students per school, with 256 students in grades K, 1, 2, 5, and 6. If the state does not lift the cap soon, Elm City will not be able to fill out its K-8 classrooms, and it will face the impossible choice of either cutting off new enrollments or sending away students graduating from the second grade.

Unfortunately, Elm City's challenges are not an isolated case. Despite the success of many of the state's best charter schools in dramatically raising student achievement, their future is in doubt.

While Connecticut is home to some of our nation's highest-performing charter schools, it is also the only state in the nation to set an enrollment cap on each of its charter schools, regardless of performance. Currently, half of Connecticut's 14 charter schools are at or near this cap.

The source of this coming enrollment crunch is a decade-old political compromise. To secure legislative passage, in 1996 a number of provisions were included in the original legislation allowing for the creation and funding of charter schools, including limitations on the number of charter schools, reduced per-pupil funding below that of traditional public schools, and capped enrollment at 250-300 students per school. As a result, the percentage of students in Connecticut charter schools is one-fourth the national average. Worse, schools working to offer children a complete, effective K-8 learning environment find their efforts hobbled.

Demand for charter schools is intensifying. In 2002-2003, 39 percent of charter schools across the country reported waiting lists averaging 135 students. Here in Connecticut, the demand for many charter schools is so great that they have to turn away two out of every three students who apply through public lottery.

Fortunately, help may be on the way. Last month, the State Board of Education unanimously approved a sweeping plan to expand the network of charter schools to not only increase the number of children helped by these schools but to serve as a catalyst for districtwide educational reform.

This proposal would transform the role that charter schools play in Connecticut's public education system, increasing the number of schools from 14 to 24 and lifting the enrollment cap on existing and future charter schools - with the vision of changing the discussion about what kinds of gains in student achievement are possible within our urban public school districts.

Over the next three weeks, Gov. M. Jodi Rell and her advisers will decide whether or not to include the board's recommendations in her new budget. Unfortunately, her political advisers are currently engaged in public courting of the teachers union - the Connecticut Education Association - that is most vigorously opposed to the board's recommendations. We trust the governor will rise above political business as usual in this election year and support schools that are doing so much for those with so little.

And if the governor is reading this, we hope she will take a moment to reflect on the many kids in her state who can't.

Nelson Smith, a nationally recognized expert on charter schools and education policy, is president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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