Connecticut cannot continue its terrible distinction of having the nation's worst achievement gap. Poor students tested in eighth-grade math in 2009 were more than three grade levels behind their better-off peers. A federal study found that white students in Connecticut score above the national average, but black students score lower, on average, than blacks across the South.
This alarming gap will not only shrivel the dreams of children, it will cripple the state by ensuring an undereducated workforce. But there's another reason to change this unacceptable status quo. The Obama administration is dangling more than $4 billion in Race to the Top grants before cash-strapped states like Connecticut to spur them into improving underperforming schools and closing the chasm.
Connecticut could qualify for up to $175 million, but to have a chance at the money, it must stop treating charter schools like the unequal stepchildren of the educational system.
Charters are public schools with more autonomy than traditional schools, but also more accountability: They can reward good teachers and punish bad ones, but they can also go out of business. Quality can vary, but there are some outstanding examples. A team from Harvard, MIT and Duke found Boston's charter schools outperforming all other schools in the city.
There are only 18 charter schools in Connecticut, and the reason is simple. The law governing charters here is among the weakest of those in 40 states.
State law limits the enrollment of any charter school to 350. Grades are limited to 85 students. Some charters have huge waiting lists. The Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich has a waiting list of 700 — twice the total school population.
Also, the schools get less per-student state aid than do public schools, and the money can easily be whittled during times of fiscal stress or by political whim. There has been no increase in the per-pupil allotment for charters for two years.
This is no way to nurture innovative schools.
The state Board of Education is calling on the legislature to increase charter schools' per-student expenditure from $9,300 to $10,300, the state average. It also is calling for the repeal of caps on the number of students in charters.
These steps are critical to getting Race to the Top money. If Connecticut loses out on the initial funding, due in April — and many say our chances are not looking good — it will be because the legislature dragged its feet. To get its share, Massachusetts has already passed laws expanding its charter schools.
The Obama administration will not award dollars to a state that does its best to curb some of its most innovative schools. Nor should it.