A Tale of Two Cities' Charter School Reactions

By Angela Carella

Hours after the state Board of Education on Wednesday announced it had approved two charter schools for Bridgeport, Mayor Bill Finch issued a statement.

"As the father of two kids who are currently attending Bridgeport public schools, I strongly believe that every child in Bridgeport deserves a fair shot at getting a high-quality education. And high-performing public charter schools in the Park City and across the state are preparing kids for college and to compete for 21st-century jobs. That's why I'm thrilled the state Board of Education gave the green light for these schools ... helping to ensure that additional high-quality public school options will be available for kids and families in our state's largest city."

In Stamford, Mayor David Martin did not issue a statement Wednesday, when the board also approved a charter school for his city, the state's third-largest.

Asked for a reaction Thursday, Martin issued a statement by email: "The state has chronically underfunded the Stamford Public Schools. The state's first priority should be to address this disparity and provide adequate resources to our public school students. I will be meeting with local stakeholders in the coming days to further discuss and evaluate the impact of the Stamford Charter School for Excellence on the public schools and broader community, and to determine how we can best proceed moving forward."

Asked whether Martin intends to try to block the public charter school, set to open in 2015, Martin's spokesman, Tom Dec, said the mayor plans a series of meetings with schools Superintendent Winifred Hamilton and members of the Stamford Board of Education. "He has not made any determinations at this point," Dec said in an email.

Why such a difference in the mayors' responses?

Bridgeport and Stamford are very different. Bridgeport is among the state's most struggling cities and Stamford among its most successful.

Stamford -- with waterfront mansions in Shippan and overcrowded apartments in multifamily homes on the East Side, West Side and other neighborhoods -- is a study in haves vs. have-nots.

Bridgeport has more than its share of have-nots.

The school systems reflect the cities, but Stamford's has enough struggling students to land it in the same place as Bridgeport's -- on the state Department of Education's "Alliance" list of 30 lowest-performing school districts in Connecticut.

Though Stamford has made progress in the last 30 years, white, Asian and higher-income students significantly outscore black, Hispanic, non-English speaking and lower-income students on state tests.

The Stamford Charter School for Excellence aims to target those students who most need help. It will be modeled after the 10-year-old Bronx Charter School for Excellence, which transformed an underachieving student population to one that excelled. The Bronx charter in 2012 won national recognition as a Blue Ribbon School.

When more children succeed in school, they are more successful as adults and society is better off. The Stamford charter will be funded mostly with state money -- not the usual case for a public school in Stamford -- and eventually will educate about 400 students in pre-K to Grade 5, removing that number from a city school system already grappling with crowded classrooms.

So why are Martin, Hamilton, members of the Stamford Board of Education and the Parent Teacher Council of Stamford so opposed to a public charter school?

Martin and school board members have said it is unfair the state will give the charter school $11,000 per student but gives city public schools only $600 per student.

For years Stamford elected officials have questioned the fairness of the formula the state uses to determine how much education money goes to each municipality.

Martin and school officials say money that the state has designated for charter schools should go to city schools instead. But it is not clear whether charter-designated money can be transferred in that way, or whether -- if Stamford somehow blocked its charter -- the money would simply go to another charter.

The Legislature began allowing the state Board of Education to grant charters in 1997. The schools are to serve as "centers for innovation and educational leadership to improve student performance," according to the statute.

Martin has said he also is concerned that the Stamford Board of Finance will subtract the per-pupil cost of students attending the charter school from the Board of Education budget.

Some Stamford parents, educators and school officials who spoke at a public hearing at the Stamford Government Center last month took on a defensive tone, telling leaders of the Bronx Charter School for Excellence that Stamford is not the Bronx and doesn't need a charter school.

Parents of minority and low-income Stamford students did not speak. Some said later they were intimidated by the opposition.

Robert Bellafiore, a senior advisor to the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which advocates for the charter school movement in Connecticut and New York, said the sometimes-nasty tone of the opposition in Stamford is not unusual.

"Opposition to charter appointments across the country seems to run off the same playbook," Bellafiore said. "They rely on innuendo, supposition and stirring up anger without considering the needs of the parents and children who may want a different kind of public school. When the complaints are boiled down to their essence, it's about turf and it's about money. It's hardly ever about the child. In the face of this kind of organized, heated rhetoric, it's hard for a parent to stand up and say in the face of the crowd, `I disagree.'"

The proof of charter schools is in the charter, Bellafiore said.

"If we don't do what we say we can do, we close when the charter ends in five years," he said. "If we are no good, children won't come and we are not funded. We close. Charter schools live with a level of accountability that other schools do not. They are accountable for their very existence."

It's one of the things John Leydon Jr. likes about the charter idea. Leydon last month was the only member of the Stamford Board of Education to vote in support of the application of the Stamford Charter School for Excellence.

"I like the focus on discipline. I like the focus on engaging the parents. I like the idea of having a school in the neighborhood where the students live. I think we should make it a priority to establish schools where students live," Leydon said. "The races of the students are not as important as engaging their parents, and if that is better accomplished by having a school nearby, I'm all for it."

Having a charter public school does not mean less money for city public schools, Leydon said.

"It was a matter of whether this money was going to be spent in Stamford or some other municipality," he said. "The state wasn't giving us a choice of whether we wanted money for police overtime or a boatyard or road improvements or a charter school or city schools. The question was do we approve of a charter school for Stamford.

"I do not see this as a loss for Stamford. If a model exists to improve the educational achievements of some of our students who have not been performing as well as we would like, we should give it a chance. If it's successful, we should emulate it. I look forward to the school coming here."