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Approps Disappoints on Danbury Charter, the Dems’ Budget Proposal, + School Choice on National Stage

Appropriations Committee Disappoints on Danbury Charter

"Regretfully, no." "Unfortunately, no." "I support charters, but I am a ‘no’ on the amendment." One by one, most Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee voted yesterday against a surprise amendment that sought to add funding for the Danbury charter school. The school was approved to open in 2018 by the Connecticut State Board of Education, and has broad community support, but it has been excluded from state budget after state budget over the years, due to a handful of staunch ideological holdouts in the local delegation. It seems, however, that their opposition is wearing thin with their colleagues on both sides of the aisle—a dynamic on dramatic display yesterday. The debate marks a sea-change from where Connecticut legislators stood on charters a decade ago.

The Appropriations Committee’s budget does increase funding for the state's twenty charter schools, reflecting additional need-based weights and enrollment figures. The budget also includes an appropriation for three new charter schools where local delegations support openings (a start-up allocation of $200,000 each in FY 24 and for FY 25: $2,100,00 in Norwalk; $4,750,000 in Middletown; and $937,500 in New Haven).

Yet again, however, the needed charter school in Danbury has been left out. Republican Representative Rachel Chaleski of Danbury's 138th District raised the last ditch amendment to address the exclusion. But a story from CT News Junkie captures the stir caused by the late-breaking attempt, which marked a rare “departure from legislative etiquette.” The unusual moment led many Democrats on the committee to publicly reinforce their support for the Danbury school, while remaining unwilling to break with long-standing committee rules.

“Danbury, I will do everything in my power: you're gonna have a school, you're gonna have a school. It might not be next year, but you will have a school… of your choice, for your children, in your community, with all our taxpayer dollars paying for it fairly,” remarked State Senator Doug McCrory in discussion regarding the last-minute amendment. “I don’t have a definition for structural racism… but I know how it makes me feel. I know how it impacts my community, and I know how it impacts your community… I know we’re not doing best for Danbury."

“In years past, I've done the thing that was the easy thing to do... going with what I think the consensus or the majority is doing. However, I cannot continue to watch these people come year after year after year [to have their requests for a charter in Danbury be ignored],” said Representative Antonio Felipe, one of the few Democrats who supported the amendment. “I'm going to support this amendment because I'm tired of sitting down when I should be standing up."

The amendment failed with a final tally of 20 for and 33 against.

What Else is in the Democrats’ Budget Proposal?

Danbury was not the only disappointment in yesterday’s budget presentation; the list of items that fell off is very long. While there is still more to unpack, here are a few top line items. The budget:

  • Provides $150M for "Education Finance Reform," which will be used to begin shifting the state's funding system so that all types of schools, including schools of choice, are funded fairly through the same formula. This falls short of the $375M that was being proposed this year to close the funding gap. CT News Junkie's Hugh McQuaid also observes that the Committee slightly expedited the scheduled phase-in of the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant—from $45.4M in the first year to $48M, and from $90.7M in the second year to $96M. In his comments, Representative Jeff Currey thanked the legislature for the commitment during a year in which tough choices were made, although he observed that the allocation is only a fraction of the costs needed to fully fund a fair, student-centered ECS grant.

  • Allocates a bit more funding to higher education than was in the Governor's proposal. As the CT Mirror's Keith Phaneuf explains, UConn stood to lose more than $300M under Governor Lamon's plan, but would only lose $200M under the Appropriations Committee's budget. The Committee's proposal also transfers $8.5M in FY 24 and FY 25 from the Roberta B. Willis Scholarship Fund (RWSP) to be spent by the CSCUs on a debt free community college program. (RWSP awards need-based and need-merit grants to college students.)

  • Provides $487,500 per year to promote and market the teaching profession over the biennium. Of this, $250,000 per year will be used to promote education careers to middle and high schoolers. $237,500 per year will be spent on statewide marketing regarding the teaching profession.

  • Redistributes up to $2M in funds that were appropriated for student placements in Open Choice, but that never materialized in districts unwilling to participate. Instead, these funds would be used for wraparound services for the students within the Open Choice program.

  • Retains $12.86M in funding each year for FY 2023 and FY 2024 for Right to Read, with no continued allocation for FY 25.

  • Does not continue the much-needed free meals for students, an effort that was funded federally at the height of the pandemic and then briefly extended by Governor Lamont through the end of this academic year.

  • Falls short on meeting the requested increases to nonprofit agencies that deliver social services.

Over the coming weeks, the $51B budget bill will be the basis of negotiations with the Governor's office, as the remainder of the legislative session unfolds.

School Choice on the National Stage

While the Connecticut Appropriations Committee had the above debate yesterday, school choice was also making news on the national stage. The House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on "School Choice: Expanding Educational Freedom for All." In essence, it was a forum during which Congressional Republicans elevated the idea that school choice could include the option to publicly fund private schools. According to coverage by Education Week, over 30 states now have laws providing billions in tuition vouchers, education savings, and tax-credit scholarships. For Democrats, concerns about accountability and anti-discrimination remain paramount.

Leading up to the Committee meeting, in a letter from DFER CEO Jorge Elorza and DFER Vice President for K-12 Policy Charles Barone, our national team laid out the fundamental problems with expanding private school choice. Private providers:

  • Do not need to adhere to federal civil rights protections for students;

  • Are not required to participate in academic testing;

  • Subsidize wealthy families who can cover the remaining costs of private tuition;

  • Have not been shown to be more effective than public schools; and

  • Can undermine the separation of church and state.

Connecticut’s own US Representative Jahana Hayes observed during the hearing, "There is a distinct difference between private charter schools and public charter schools... I am a proponent of public charter schools. I think that parents should be able to choose a school that has a specific stream or a STEM academy or arts education... but I also believe that public funds should require public accountability." Well said.

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