On June 4, 1996, after six months of debate, excitement, and testimony, Governor John Rowland signed Public Act 96-214, which established public charter schools in the State of Connecticut.
The law first received overwhelming support in the Connecticut General Assembly, passing the Senate on May 2, 1996, 28 votes to 7, and passing the House on May 8, 1996, 130 votes to 16. Those votes, and the discussions that preceded them, offer a glimpse into the vision lawmakers had for public charter schools and school choice as they passed our state’s charter law.
Mostly, legislative leaders spoke passionately about the opportunity that public charter schools would provide families. Charters in Connecticut offer educators a space to innovate, and offer families the option to choose a school that would work best for their child.
Those themes shine through in the following quotes from Connecticut lawmakers, taken from the House and Senate debates before each chamber passed the state’s charter bill:
Commissioner of the Department of Revenue Services, former Lieutenant Governor, and former Senate President Pro-Tempore Kevin Sullivan on the Potential of Public Charter Schools
“Is this the answer to what we need to do for public education in Connecticut? Of course it is not. It is one part of the answer. And it is a very important part of the answer. In those states where charter schools have been part of the fabric of education now for some years, all expectations about creaming out the best students, discriminating against others, have not been fulfilled.
“We have found small schools, highly intensive, highly focused, highly successful, and highly diverse. Indeed, the charter schools across this country have turned out to be more diverse and more successful than our regular public schools, and certainly even than the private schools.” Former Senate President Pro-Tempore Kevin Sullivan, May 2, 1996.
Senate President Pro-Tempore Martin Looney on the Strong Support for Charters and School Options
“Madam President, as an advocate for greater flexibility and the empowerment of families in securing options for the education of their children, I would like very much to commend Senator Freedman and Senator Sullivan and all of those others who worked to build consensus on this bill this year.
“I think it is extremely valuable in moving us forward and being responsive to the real needs of families who are desperate, that in many ways they don't find the options available to them in their communities for their education of their children, especially affordable options that they are hoping for.” Senate President Pro-Tempore Martin Looney, May 2, 1996
Former House Minority Leader Larry Cafero on Charter Schools and Opportunity
“If people say that charter schools are the ruination of public education as we know it, I think you are absolutely wrong. Those who claim that public education has failed and we need these alternatives, I would also submit to you are absolutely wrong.
“Thank God we have a very strong viable public education system in Connecticut, but that does not mean that we can't use some alternative, creative ways of providing educational opportunities - public school opportunities - and that's what charter school legislation is all about.” Former House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, May 8, 1996
Former Senator Cathy Cook on Parent Engagement
“I believe public schools of choice will enhance that important contract that needs to be strengthened between parent and child in the engagement of the educational future of the child. Simply by virtue of the presence of charter schools in our state, we are going to solidify that contract, that choice, that parents are making with their children to improve the quality of their education.” Former Sen. Cathy Cook, May 2, 1996.
Former Representative Paul J. Knierim on Innovation and Opportunity
“I do think that charter schools are one of the bright spots on the horizon of education reform. By no means a panacea but they are a bright spot for two principle reasons in my estimation.
“First, charter schools do offer a great opportunity for innovation and flexibility. By allowing a wide variety of organizations to apply for a charter. By allowing them to specialize in various ways whether it's for purposes of curriculum or pedagogy or classroom size or various other ways.
“And by allowing those charter schools to operate free of some of the mandates that might otherwise apply we provide an opportunity for educators and others to operate schools that try new approaches, or try different approaches that might work for various student populations whose needs might not be served that well in other school systems.
“The second way that I think that charter schools are a bright spot in the education reform front is that charter schools enhance the opportunities that families have to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children. Connecticut already has a variety of school choice mechanisms. And charter schools could add to that.
“They are by definition schools of choice because it is families, parents and their children who decide whether or not to attend a school.” Former Rep. Paul J. Knierim, May 8, 1996.
Eventually, the State Board of Education voted to approve twelve public charter schools on February 27, 1997. The schools, ten of which were state charter schools, and two of which were local, included: Ancestors Community Charter High School (Waterbury); Bridge Academy (Bridgeport); Common Ground High School (New Haven); Coventry Science Center (Coventry)*; Explorations Charter School (Winsted); Integrated Day Charter School (Norwich); Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (New London); Jumoke Academy (Hartford); Odyssey Community School (Manchester); Side by Side Community School (Norwalk); Sports Sciences Academy (Hartford)*; and Village Academy (New Haven). (* denotes a local charter school.)
Those first public charter schools opened in the fall of 1997, educating more than 1,000 children across the state. They were hailed as an opportunity to offer more families choice in their education, and a way for educators to innovate and improve the quality of education all students receive.
In the decade that followed, 14 new public charter schools opened, paving the way for thousands of children to access a unique public school that fits their learning needs. And after a four-year gap, the State Board of Education approved seven additional charters, the most recent of which opened this past fall.
While most of the charters that have opened over the past two decades still serve students today, some schools have closed or transitioned to traditional district or magnet schools.
Overall, of the 33 state and local charter schools that have opened in Connecticut, nine are no longer operating. Those closed schools are a fulfillment of the vision held by lawmakers when they first passed public charter schools: increased accountability for increased flexibility. When charters don’t perform, they face closure – making them the most accountable public schools in the state.
Still, a number of charters closed not because of poor academic or financial performance, but because they couldn’t afford to keep their doors open.
Charter school children are still funded less than children in district schools. When charters began operating in 1997, they received a per pupil grant that was nearly $6,000 per-child. State support is now at $11,000 per-child -- far less than what other public schools have to support their students. In fact, public charter school students currently receive nearly $4,000 less on average than their peers in traditional district schools.
Today, though charters are consistently growing, the lack of equitable funding from the state does not make that growth sustainable. As essential costs like teacher pay, facilities upkeep, and insurance costs rise annually without any increase in support, public charter schools are stretching already tight budgets to their limit.
Still, since their inception charters have been in high-demand, and that continues to this day. Enrollment has grown from about 1,000 students in 1997-1998, to over 9,600 approved for the upcoming 2016-2017 school year, and charter waitlists increased by 60% last year to nearly 6,000 names. There is also huge demand for new schools in communities across the state, but the Department of Education has not release a Request for Proposals for new schools yet.
Unfortunately, for every year a child who wants access to a public charter school who is stuck on a waitlist or without a school nearby, we’re failing to follow through on the vision lawmakers had twenty years ago.
We remain optimistic that in the future, state leaders will follow through on the promise of public charter schools and continue to champion access to new opportunities for families across Connecticut.
In the meantime, take a deeper look at the story of public charter schools here through our interactive timeline, or in the timeline below.