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Use School Money Wisely To Protect Innovative Successes

Hartford Courant

March 30, 2009

Though it was prompted in part by a lawsuit, Connecticut in the past dozen years has become a hotbed of educational innovation. Educators have developed remarkable, award-winning schools around the state that are breaking ground and closing the lamentable achievement gap between urban and suburban students.

But this progress has not come without substantial investment. The state has committed billions of dollars to build and operate magnet and charter schools and programs such as Open Choice.

Despite efforts by Gov. M. Jodi Rell and other leaders to keep the funding in place, the budget crisis threatens a decade of progress. That would be shameful, and can be avoided if the state does a serious review of how schools in all their varieties are funded.

Charter Schools

Take, for example, charter schools, which are freed from traditional rules and policies in return for producing results. Many of the state's 18 charter schools have won regional and national recognition. Gov. Rell proposes holding their funding steady for the next two years.

The problem is that a half-dozen of the schools are unfinished. Many charter schools start with, say, two grades and then add a grade each year until they are complete schools. Eight of the state charters are in that growth phase, but there is no money to add new classes. Most dramatically, without funding, the 11th-graders at New Haven's Amistad Academy, one of the country's most successful urban schools, won't be able to finish the 12th grade. That would be profoundly disappointing.

Amistad is run by a nonprofit called Achievement First, which opened the Achievement First Hartford Academy this year, with a kindergarten, first and fifth grade. By all accounts, it's doing splendidly. But if more funding is not forthcoming, the youngsters in the first and fifth grades won't be able to move up. The shortfall is $4.5 million in 2009-10 and $6.9 million the following year.


There are similar difficulties with the magnet schools in Greater Hartford. Magnets are schools organized around specific themes or curriculums classics, arts, science, etc. that attempt to draw youngsters across district lines. Though a few predate it, most local magnet schools were created after the 1996 Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation decision as a way of breaking up the racial isolation in the Hartford public schools.

There are two types of magnets in the area: regional schools operated by the Capitol Region Education Council for the state and "host" magnets run by the Hartford public schools and other public districts. Both are helping Hartford turn the corner and improve achievement, but both being strained by fiscal problems.

Capitol Region Education Council officials say the basic grant for each student, about $7,600, is too low and will leave a gap of $9.8 million. There is an additional shortfall of about $5 million for transportation and some construction expenses. Due to a change in the formula, Hartford has had to start charging tuition for suburban youngsters coming into the host magnet schools.

Open Choice

Some complain that the grant for students taking part in the Open Choice program, in which Hartford kids are bused to suburban schools, is also too low, and will force suburban systems to opt out of the program. (Bristol just declined to add 85 Open Choice slots because of a projected local cost of $600,000.)

It's not as if the state isn't spending on schools. The Education Cost Sharing grant, the main state education grant to towns, is $1.9 billion. The state will also pay about $125 million for magnet schools this year, as well as $44 million for charters. Add technical and vocational-agricultural high schools, teacher retirement and other costs, along with hundreds of millions in bonding funds for school construction, and there is a major state commitment to education. With 10-figure deficits predicted for the next two years, there may not be more cash to be had.

The best opportunity is to spend existing funds more efficiently. The various magnet and charter programs were added at different times and have different rates of reimbursement. Connecticut should develop a rational and consistent way of funding that rewards the best schools and doesn't penalize towns for taking part in regional initiatives.

If the money follows the child, to a greater degree than it now does, more innovation and higher academic achievement might follow. That's the outcome we're looking for.

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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