Upending school choice in the Nutmeg State

Imagine a law that forces your family into a charter school lottery, a law that doesn’t care whether you would choose a charter or not. The burden is on you to refuse the seat and a family who does want the seat is waiting for you to act.

Such a law may only be a few legislative steps away in Connecticut. Democratic leaders in the state General Assembly have hitched this “opt-out” lottery to a sweeping omnibus bill that covers reforms that range from teacher quality to school improvement, and where better to bury it? Many provisions in Senate Bill 24 have generated heat over tenure reform and charter school funding, distracting the public from this perversion of parental choice in education.

SB 24 twists the concept of choice and could decimate the progress charters have made in the Nutmeg State.

The lottery would be imposed on all new charter schools and would draw from the names of every student from the district in which the charter operates, leaving it to the family to accept or decline the spot. The provision emerged from a closed-door meeting with union leaders and the Democratic chairs of the state’s joint education committee and follows attempts in at least one other state to get around the issue of “creaming” in school choice.

Indeed, an opt-out scheme may position more English language learners and special education students for entry in charter schools, but it would do so by making charters the first schools of assignment and upend what makes them unique. They are different by design and they develop their strength when students, parents, and teachers buy into their mission. If legislators tailor charter schools into one size that fits every student, they will twist the concept of choice and decimate the progress charters have made in the Nutmeg State.

A similar idea took shape last year in New Jersey. Lawmakers in the Garden State considered, and ultimately ignored, a bill establishing an opt-out lottery that sought to make charters look more like the communities they anchored. Not surprisingly, the bill had the support of Save Our Schools NJ, a vocal advocacy group that sees school choice as a threat to students who remain in public schools. Mercifully, the bill sponsor agreed to table the legislation this year after charter operators convinced him that the lottery would tax their operations.

Under such a law, districts would have to wait for families to leave the charter pool before planning for the school year, and charters would end up calling thousands of parents who may have no interest in their schools in order to open seats for families who would. But this may be what the Connecticut teacher unions had in mind: burden charters with a taxing mandate that mutes the concept of parental choice. “If you can’t beat them,” said Lisa Grover, state advocacy director for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “then at least you can make their lives difficult.”

"If you can't beat them, then at least you can make their lives difficult."

Legislators whose constituents benefit from a charter school education should not let this measure pass without debate. Additionally, Governor Dannel Malloy would help by drawing more attention to the lottery as he builds support for his original ideas for education reform. Senate Bill 24 today is mostly a weakened substitute for the reforms Malloy proposed in early February. The governor championed local funding for charter schools, heightened expectations for teachers, and higher standards for public schools. The education committee and the Democrats who lead it diluted all of those plans after they met privately with union leaders.

If the unions and their legislative allies want to slow the expansion of charter schools, then this ploy might work. If they want to ensure that more underrepresented students have access to quality options, then they would be more successful by emboldening districts and charters to work collaboratively. An opt-out lottery would only discourage effective charter applicants who will see a burdensome and costly mandate getting in the way of their mission.

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