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State Stands To Win Up To $175M For School Reform

Department of Education Racing To Finish Race To The Top Application

GRACE E. MERRITT

January 18, 2010

HARTFORD - The state Department of Education has been racing to finish its application to the federal Race to the Top competition that's designed to stimulate broad-based school reform.

With $4.35 billion on the table a tantalizing chunk of change in a time of tight budgets states are fiercely competing to file the most compelling proposal.

"We're in an era of fiscal crisis. This is the only game in town," said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

The grant program, part of the federal economic stimulus package, is designed to reward states that promote innovative reforms to improve teaching, do a better job tracking student performance and shore up failing schools.

Connecticut stands to win up to $175 million in Race to the Top money and is working overtime to get towns to sign on, write proposed legislation and iron out hundreds of other details by Tuesday's deadline.

Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan has been working late and on weekends and held numerous meetings with superintendents, teacher organizations and school boards to encourage schools systems across the state to support the application by signing a memorandum of understanding to participate.

So far, 120 out of 187 school districts including charter schools and regional education centers have signed up. To promote cooperation, the application encourages each district's superintendent, school board chairman and teacher union representative to sign the agreement.

Some school boards have been hesitant to sign, worried about whether they will be able to withdraw from the project at any time and whether local taxpayers will be saddled with extra costs to keep programs running after the federal money dries up, said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, which has been advising local boards.

"What we're doing is just telling them they should review details of the state plan, figure how much they are eligible to receive and think about whether the district will be able to support the work when the funding ends in four years," Rader said.

Suffield's board of education, for example, opted not to sign the memorandum of agreement last week, arguing that its estimated $33,000 allocation spread out over four years would not come close to helping the board pay for changes it wants to make.

Connecticut is eligible to receive a maximum of $175 million spread over four years, a small number compared to the $8.5 billion the state spends on pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 public education each year.

Half the Race to the Top money would go directly to local participating towns based on need. Hartford, for example, would get $14.8 million. West Hartford would get a relatively small lump sum of $170,000 in each of the four years.

"Big cities are in for millions of dollars and we're in for diddly-squat. That's not the issue," said Terry Schmitt, vice chairman of the West Hartford school board. The school board voted recently to be a "good citizen" and respond to the commissioner's appeal to sign up but also to take advantage of cutting-edge teacher training and professional development.

The other half of the grant money would pay for state-run activities, such as professional development for teachers, running a regional teacher exchange, building data systems to track students from kindergarten through the public university system, expanding advanced placement courses and hiring more Department of Education employees to run everything.

Along with getting towns to sign on, the board of education is developing proposed legislation to allow for secondary school reform, lift enrollment caps on charter schools and increase state per-pupil grants to charter schools from $9,300 to $10,300.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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