Achievement First Inc. one of the nation’s larger charter school management companies with 20 schools in New York and Connecticut, is rapidly expanding in Connecticut, despite the fact that the 2012 education reform debate is supposed to include a discussion about whether the state should make greater use of the charter school model.
How does Achievement First and a select group of other charter schools have the authority to expand?
The answer can be found in a 2010 education bill that became law.
If you’ve been following the education reform debate, you will have seen that various news outlets have reported that over the past six years only two new charter schools have opened even though there have been at least 20 applications from charter advocates to open new programs.
And yes, according to published reports, the State Department of Education wouldn’t even accept any applications for new charter schools between 2006 and 2009.
And finally, sitting on Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor’s desk are seven more applications that were filed last October seeking to create an additional 1,600 new charter seats.
Connecticut’s public policy has been to hold off on the expansion of charter schools until a comprehensive education reform plan is developed and adopted.
But meanwhile, as a result of some “technical language” that was added to a 2010 education bill that passed and became law, the State Board of Education not only has the authority to allow Achievement First and a few other charter schools to expand BUT THEY MUST approve their immediate expansion plans.
Yes, you read that right. The law requires the State Board of Education to approve the expansion requests from Achievement First and other charter schools regardless of whether the Department of Education believes it’s a good idea.
Perhaps it’s a tribute to the $635,000 ConnCAN and its sister organization has spent on lobbying charter school issues in Connecticut .
As schools in cities and towns all across Connecticut are facing significant budget cuts and layoffs, one wonders what legislators were thinking when they adopted a law that will end up moving even more scarce resources away from our district schools and to these charter schools.
While Achievement First, ConnCAN and other charter school advocates are publicly claiming they are being ill-treated by Connecticut’s policymakers, they seem a little silent on the fact that their legislative lobbying has ensured that they get to expand regardless of what new policies and programs accompany “education reform”.
The sign their rhetoric and reality don’t match surfaced recently when the Hartford Board of Education moved with amazing speed to approve an Achievement First proposal to expand its Hartford based charter school. Achievement First – HartfordAcademyopened in 2008 as a Kindergarten through 8th grade program.
However last week, the Hartford’s School Board, the same ones who have been so outspoken about the fact that the City of Hartford doesn’t have enough money to run its present schools, voted to allow Achievement First to expand their Hartford Academy program to the ninth grade in the fall of 2012 and then add the remaining three grades in subsequent school years.
So as policymakers and advocacy groups talk about finding common ground on “education reform”, Achievement First is adding an entire high school program in Hartford. Other charter schools are expanding as well.
Achievement First gets this unique power thanks to Public Act 10-111.
In the past, Connecticut law has required that the State Board of Education review and approve all charter schools applications before the schools can begin operating and one of the primary criteria was whether the General Assembly had decided to provide additional funding for charter schools. PA 10-111 eliminated the requirement that the Department of Education wait for appropriate funding.
Even more importantly,Connecticut law limited the size of charter schools to 250 students or, in the case of a K-8 schools, 300 students and required that there be no more than 85 students per grade. Charter schools could ask the Department of Education for approval to be bigger than 250 or 300 but the 85 students per grade requirement still remained.
The new 2010 law eliminated the grade limit of 85 and REQUIRED that the State Department of Education “waive the overall enrollment limits” if these particular charter schools wanted to expand.
Completely gone is the Connecticut State Board of Education’s role in weighing the costs and benefits of allowing these charter schools to expand.
The new law also made permanent what was originally a two-year charter school facility grant program which allowed the state to use state funds to make capital improvements to charter schools,
And the new law also required that, as of July 2010, all “qualified charter school professionals” must go into the State’s Teacher Retirement Pension and Health Insurance System meaning taxpayers will be on the hook for providing charter school teachers with pensions and health benefits after they are vested and retire. The cost of putting charter school teachers into the State Teacher Retirement System could be significant. As of 2010, the state’s contribution to the Teacher Retirement System was about $7,600 per teacher, per year. Adding even 50 charter school teachers would cost the state an additional $380,000 a year or almost $4 million over the next decade.
The net effect is that Achievement First, already the largest charter school provider in Connecticut, has an automatic green light to expand. Achievement First Hartford, which had 593 students in 2010-2011, will reach 797 by 2012-2013 and will still expand even further in later years. Achievement First Bridgeport will go from 410 in 2010-2011 to 672 in 2012-2013 and smaller expansions will be taking place at Achievement First Amistad Academy and at Achievement First’s Elm City College Preparatory school.
Oh and finally, in response to Achievement First and ConnCAN’s complaint that the state needs to adopt the “money follow the child” system so they can get extra funds for their programs. It is interesting to note that when it comes to Achievement First Hartford, the City of Hartford, paid $1.5 million to help renovate the old school building Achievement First moved into. In addition, the City of Hartford pays Achievement First $500 a year for each Hartford student who attends Achievement First Hartford (that is on top of the grant Achievement First gets from the state) and the City of Hartford provided Achievement First with a “one-time payment” of $400,000 to “cover costs associated with the operation of the school”.
As Achievement First has expanded, the cost to the City of Hartford has also gone up. According to one estimate,Hartford now provides Achievement First with $2.35 million a year.
The story makes one wonder what else Achievement First isn’t telling us.
Of course, as readers will already know, Stefan Pryor, our State’s Education Commissioner, is well aware of all of this information as he helped to create Achievement First and was one of its Directors until he resigned to take on the role of running Connecticut’s public education system.