‘Capitol Connection’ – An Education Primer

February 29, 2012

Choice. Charter. Magnet. CREC. If you have been reading the news lately, you may have come across one or all of these terms. As Governor Malloy announced prior to the start of this year’s legislative session, a major focus would be education reform. Many experts are deeply concerned over the achievement gap between our state’s highest and lowest performing students. We are truly fortunate to live in a part of the state with some of the best public and private schools to educate our children. In preparation for the coming debate, I believe it is important to understand the terminology and types of schools with which we may not all be familiar.

School choice describes the opportunity for families and parents to choose which school their children will attend. In the past, children would simply attend a public school serving one or more of their communities. Towns or cities would elect Boards of Education to oversee this process, and some smaller towns regionalized to better pool their resources. Many of us are very familiar with this process today. However, public schools in some areas have faced significant challenges in recruiting top teachers or educating students to a certain level of achievement. After years of growing concern, education advocates embarked on a new strategy of operating under a different set of rules aimed at improving student achievement or by drawing students from numerous districts to specialized schools. These examples describe charter and magnet schools.

Many have referenced charter schools as being the solution to our state’s achievement gap, but what exactly do they do? Charter schools are elementary, middle or high schools that receive public funding but are not subject to the same set of rules that apply to other public schools. While it is still up for debate, many education advocates believe that charter schools offer improved efficiency and a higher level of student achievement. In fact, our current Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor was the co-founder of the Amistad Academy Charter School in New Haven. Since then, the organization has expanded under the name of Achievement First to Hartford, Bridgeport and even New York City. For more information about charter schools in our state, please visit the Connecticut Charter School Network website at www.ctcharterschoolnetwork.org.

Magnet schools are also public schools that usually have a specific focus and draw students from surrounding towns. In the 1960s, magnet schools emerged as a method of improving racial integration in public schools. In recent years, they have continued to gain interest for families seeking specialized classes or increased diversity. For example, the Connecticut River Academy is operated by Goodwin College with a focus on environmental science. Students may even take college level courses in preparation for a future career in the field.

Living in our area, you are most likely familiar with the Capitol Region Education Council, or CREC. Formed in 1966, CREC is one of six Regional Educational Service Centers (RESCs) that were established under the Connecticut General Statutes to allow local boards of education to form a “public educational authority” that would take “cooperative action to furnish programs and services.” Among its goals, CREC promotes cooperation between local school districts and provides them with cost-effective services to improve the quality of public education. Currently, this organization is made up of 35 member districts, including communities such as Avon, Canton, Granby, Hartland, Harwinton, New Hartford and Simsbury. To learn more about CREC, please visit their website at www.crec.org.

Over the next few months, education reform will continue to be an important topic. Our region is home to many of the state’s highest achieving traditional public and private schools, and it will be necessary to balance the needs of struggling districts with those of successful districts. Smart proposals for education reform can have a major effect on improving student achievement in our state. With these educational terms in mind, I am hopeful that the legislature will have an honest and bipartisan debate to solve these problems. However you feel about the Governor’s proposal, I encourage you to participate in the legislative process and speak with your elected officials.