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Legislators Debating How To Use Stimulus Money In Connecticut Schools

JOSH KOVNER

April 29, 2009

Connecticut is banking on a one-time infusion of about $745 million in federal stimulus money to shore up local schools in 2010 and 2011, but controversy is simmering about how best to use the money.

So far, the lion's share of the funds appears headed directly into the state budget to preserve local school aid at the current level and help cities and towns avoid laying off teachers and curtailing programs. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has made that a key part of her budget proposal and the Democratic leadership largely agrees with her.

But some lawmakers in Hartford and Washington are wondering if simply maintaining the status quo is the best use of that money both on educational and fiscal grounds. Rell's plan would certainly help budget-strapped school districts, but would it satisfy the expectations of reform that are tied to the $48.6 billion in stimulus money that federal education officials have earmarked for the nation's governors?

Some lawmakers don't think so, and they say that some of the state's share of the stimulus money should be used to create model school programs. They argue the money should be used to spark reform and that doing so would enable the state to vie for millions in the U.S. Department of Education's $5 billion "Race to the Top" grants competition.

U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman said he wants the money to be more than a financial stop-gap for schools.

"In addition to addressing budget shortfalls and preventing layoffs," the education stimulus funds "are intended to be used to close achievement gaps and achieve education reform," Lieberman said.

That sentiment lines up with the federal "guidance" on the matter, which is about as precise as it gets in the world of stimulus funding.

"We're encouraging states, as much as possible, to drive reform with this money," Sandra Abrevaya, deputy press secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, told The Courant.

"If there's just one program that Connecticut invests in that shows outstanding results these are the 'pockets of excellence' that [U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan] is talking about taking up to scale through 'Race [to] the Top,'" Abrevaya said.

State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the education committee, said his panel plans a public hearing to help determine how the $541.8 million should be spent.

He said Democrats also support preserving local school aid at the 2009 level, "but spending all of the stimulus money to do that, while it may be the simplest approach, could harm our chances for competitive grants.

"We should be using some of the money to bolster promising programs, whether they're our CommPACT schools, or magnet schools, or charter schools. We would then be positioning ourselves for more federal dollars over the next two years," Fleischmann said.

But Matthew Fritz, one of Rell's point people on stimulus spending, said that stopping a backward slide for school districts, holding on to teacher jobs, and using other, specially targeted stimulus money to improve programs for special education students and children of low-income families amounts to reform.

"Strengthening parts strengthens the whole," Fritz said.

Democratic state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, co-chairman of the education committee, said the reeling economy and large state budget deficit leave lawmakers with little choice but to back Rell's plan to preserve local school aid.

"Philosophically, the best use of the stimulus money is to enhance programs. As a practical matter, if you do that, you shift the tax burden to cities and towns," Gaffey said.

Under the stimulus plan, Connecticut's education money would arrive in three pots. The largest, and least restricted, is $541.8 million in "fiscal stabilization" funds that can be used for anything from saving teacher jobs to bolstering magnet schools. That's the money that Rell wants to use to hold local school aid at its current level of $1.89 billion for the next two years.

The other two pots $132 million for special education, and $71 million for children of low-income families has to be used to improve those specific programs.

But even the least-restricted money has expectations of reform tied to it, including improving the performance of students and teachers, and the way schools track student progress. Federal education officials have made it clear they want to see more accomplished with the states' share of the $48.6 billion than saving jobs, preserving all-day kindergarten and avoiding making kids pay to play school sports.

In fact, the major pool of money $541.8 million would come to Connecticut in two parts. Two-thirds of it would be released by the feds within two weeks of the state's application. To access the remainder, Duncan wrote in a letter to the governors earlier this month, states have to show a commitment to reforms in the areas of teacher effectiveness, college readiness, school performance and data collection.

There's another wrinkle some of the funding might have to go to the state's colleges. The federal guidance says the stabilization money is "to benefit students ... from pre-kindergarten through post-secondary and college."

"Right now, the governor is proposing to use all the stabilization money to level-fund" local school aid, said Jeffrey Beckham, an undersecretary in the Office of Policy and Management. "She's using the federal funding as revenue."

Whether that position holds up during budget negotiations with legislative leaders remains to be seen, said Beckham, adding that decisions on how much money higher education receives, or whether some of the stimulus money is used to enhance some school programs, will have to be made before a state budget is adopted.

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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