HARTFORD — On a picture-perfect Thursday, hundreds of children, parents and grandparents donned chartreuse T-shirts and danced, shouted and pumped their signs at the Capitol to urge legislators to put money in the state budget to expand the number of seats available in charter schools.
"We're here together because of an urgent truth," said Christopher Mercer, a parent from Bridgeport who has a kindergartner on multiple charter school waiting lists. "The Connecticut state legislature is about to deny 861 public students access to a great public charter school."
The event drew about 1,000 participants from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y. , and Boston.
Mercer said that hundreds of children want to attend two new charter schools that were intended to open this fall — Stamford Charter School for Excellence and Capital Preparatory Harbor School — and that hundreds more hope to get seats in existing charters that have been planning to expand.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had included $12 million in his proposed budget for new charter school seats, including $4.6 million to open the new schools.
But last week the legislature's appropriations committee, faced with a budget crunch and the competing needs of under-funded traditional public schools, cut funds from its proposed budget for the new schools and for expanded seats at existing schools. The committee left in money for "grade growth" at existing schools, so that, for instance, a third-grader may go to fourth grade in the fall.
"Eight hundred and sixty-one represents real kids, real families and real lives," Mercer said. "If we don't make our voices heard, these 861 kids face a very different future."
His own daughter has been put on wait lists by multiple charter schools over the past two years, with positions ranging from 18 to 189. She's now attending a traditional public school in Bridgeport.
"She's beautiful, smart and intuitive … yet somehow she comes home without homework," Mercer said. "I don't think she's being prepared for her future. I know she's capable of much more."
The rally, which featured a disc jockey who kept many dancing before it started, was sponsored by the Coalition for Every Child — a group that includes Families for Excellent Schools and several other charter advocacy organizations. A spokesman said all costs will be listed when documents are filed with the state.
Among the state leaders who addressed the crowd was the man who is probably their most influential ally: Malloy.
"All our schools should be great schools, and we should not be dividing ourselves by what type of school or who runs a school," Malloy said. "What we have to do is make sure we have great schools available to all of our students, and that's exactly what I've been trying to do for four years and will try to do over the next four years as well."
Malloy said that Connecticut is going to have many types of schools, including charter schools. "Let's work together," he said. "And, yes, let's make sure that we fund charter schools in the state of Connecticut."
Malloy's decision to include money for the two new schools in his budget gave some parents confidence that the schools will be funded in the fall. Wanda Simmons is one of those parents, and she has enrolled her daughter, Gabrielle, at Capital Prep Harbor School in Bridgeport, although she realizes that the funding is not a certainty.
"At 9 years old, she had a goal to go to Yale," Simmons said. If she goes to Capital Prep, Simmons thinks she'll have a better chance. She thinks that Capital Prep will offer her daughter an environment that's "conducive to her learning and that values her as a student and as an individual."
"This is a bittersweet day," Simmons said. "I'm saddened that we have to come and rally for this because, in my opinion, this should be something that's afforded to our children all the time."
Although some in the crowd were like Simmons — parents whose children will be directly affected by funding this fall — many others were parents whose children are already attending charter schools and want to see others given the same chance.
Kishaun Jenkins has two children who attend Elm City College Preparatory Elementary School in New Haven. "They are getting a great education, compared to the education I got," Jenkins said.
by Kathleen Megan via Hartford Courant