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Connecticut Fails To Win Race to the Top Educational Funding

By GRACE E. MERRITT

July 27, 2010

Educators and legislators predicted that the state's failure to win a penny in the $3.4 billion Race to the Top education funding competition could delay some of the landmark educational reforms that the state legislature passed this spring.

Legislators and education leaders were uniformly disappointed to learn that Connecticut for the second time did not place among the 19 finalists announced Tuesday for federal school reform money.

The state had asked for $175 million, and is now worried that plans that include instituting a new high school curriculum and building a data system to track student achievement by grade will have to be postponed.

"It's obvious if the economy doesn't turn around and we continue to have dire fiscal straits in Connecticut, we will have to push back various reforms," said State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.

"We're going to have to find the dollars to implement this. We cannot create some kind of unfunded mandate for cities and towns that are already strapped."

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said that without the funding, taxpayers will now be expected to foot the cost of the state school reform legislation, a prospect he warned about during floor debate this spring. He noted that the bill puts several mandates on local school systems, including increasing graduation credit requirements by 25 percent.

"The attitude in the legislature has been that there's no need to worry because someone else is going to pay for this," Cafero said.

Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the state might have to delay the planned start of the high school reform package in 2014, as well as plans to emphasize math, science, technology and engineering in the classroom. It could also delay planned professional development programs for teachers and administrators designed to encourage engagement of parents in their child's school.

"We won't be able to do as much of this as fast as we'd like," Murphy said, "but that doesn't mean we won't be doing these things. It's just going to take longer."

Connecticut was among 39 applicants vying for the $3.4 billion in federal economic stimulus money. Although it wasn't a finalist, neighboring Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island were.

Other finalists were Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

The finalists will present their proposals in Washington in August, and the winners will be announced in September. At a press conference Tuesday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he plans to hold a third round of Race to the Top competition.

Since losing out on the first round of funding in March, Connecticut scrambled to pass school reform legislation in May and, more recently, adopted a national core curriculum to try to better position itself for a win this time.

The competition helped stir major change in Connecticut. It prompted a collaboration of school, business and community leaders and school reform advocates who crafted a blueprint for closing the achievement gap between the state's poor and minority students and their more affluent counterparts and for lowering high school dropout rates.

Some questioned, however, whether all that collaboration resulted in watered-down legislation that wasn't dramatic enough to stand out. The competition, for example, awarded points for states that made student performance a major component of teacher evaluations. Connecticut's legislation created a council to develop a new way to evaluate teachers using student performance as one factor.

"We kept it vague and general, and that probably hurt the application," said state Rep. Jason Bartlett, D-Danbury, who pushed for school reforms proposed by the legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

School reform advocate Alex Johnston said the state's failure to win money again is a clear sign of how far Connecticut needs to go to restore its position nationally an a leader in education.

"It should serve as a call to action for every candidate for governor," said Johnston, executive director of ConnCAN, a school reform and charter school advocacy group. "While we made significant strides in this year's legislative session, the hard truth is that there is still much work to be done if we are to catch up to the leading states on education policy."

Others questioned the underlying premise of holding a competition as a way to award federal education aid, especially when so many states are strapped for cash.

"We've got a lot of struggling school systems out there and it appears that they are going be left out," said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. "The competition may be well-intentioned, but it doesn't seem to manifest itself in outcomes. They are dangling millions of dollars in front of states that these days are cash-starved."

But Duncan, at his press conference, said the competition was never really about the money, but was instead meant to stimulate states to make bold education reform. He pointed out that the Race to the Top money represents only about 1 percent of the money spent on K-12 education nationwide and that states can apply for other federal funding.

Indeed, the competition appears to have given momentum to Connecticut's efforts to adopt secondary school reform and address the achievement gap. The legislature passed a package of education reforms that require high school students to take more math and science courses and pass end-of-year exams. The bill also sets up the framework to link teacher evaluations to student performance and lifts enrollment restrictions on high-performing charter schools.

It also requires schools to offer advanced placement courses and hold parent-teacher conferences twice a year and created parent-dominated school governance councils at failing schools.

"We're disappointed we didn't win Race to the Top. But the last thing people should do right now is throw up their hands and quit," said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, co-chairman of the education committee. "We need to do what we can do with resources that we have."

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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