Race to the Top: Making a new start

Hoping for a second chance at millions of dollars in federal stimulus money for school reform, state lawmakers enlisted the help Thursday of education groups whose views are often at odds.

In a hastily called press conference, the co-chairmen of the legislature’s Education Committee assembled the unusual coalition to help the state rewrite a school reform plan for the federal government’s Race to the Top program.

The conference took place only hours after Connecticut was eliminated from the first round of the grant competition.

State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan attended the conference, along with representatives of the state’s two major teacher unions, the governor’s office, and the school reform group Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN). All agreed to help rewrite the state’s application and discuss legislation that could help put Connecticut in better position to compete for a second round of awards.

“This is not going to be about partisan politics or turf,” state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, said later. “It’s going to be about finding common ground on what’s best for the kids of Connecticut.”

That may not be easy. There have been sharply different views among the groups about how to fix struggling schools. ConnCAN’s advocacy for charter schools, for example, has put the group at odds with teacher unions and others who say that increasing funding for charters will drain money from traditional public schools. ConnCAN also criticized the state’s initial Race to the Top application, contending it was incomplete. McQuillan, who led the effort to prepare the application, denies that allegation. And both Gaffey and state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, the co-chairmen of the legislature’s Education Committee, have criticized Gov. M. Jodi Rell, accusing her of doing too little to support the Race to the Top effort.

Gaffey called for a series of education summits to rework the state’s application and discuss possible new legislation.

“Everyone’s ideas will be on the table,” he said. “Proposals from all the groups will receive a fair and open hearing.” He added, “The real stakeholders here are the children of Connecticut. We’re going to do everything possible to improve student learning and achievement.”

In Race to the Top, the Obama administration is dangling more than $4.3 billion in incentives to spur education reforms. With state budgets suffering through the nation’s slumping economy, several states already have made aggressive efforts to compete for the money.

Connecticut was one of 40 states applying to the U.S. Department of Education for a grant but had been considered a long shot, partly because existing laws and regulations governing charter schools and other reform measures may be considered too restrictive, some officials have said. Fifteen other states and the District of Columbia were announced as finalists Thursday.

In January, Connecticut submitted a wide-ranging 680-page application seeking $193 million over four years for an extensive reform agenda that included efforts to reshape public high schools, improve data collection on student progress, and bolster the quality of the teaching force.

The state plans to revise its application and submit it for a second round of grants to be awarded in September.

“This is a moment we have to pull together as a state,” McQuillan said at Thursday’s press conference. “It’s very evident there were other states ahead of us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t catch up.”

Gaffey said the legislature is considering bills this year that could improve Connecticut’s standing in the competition. Pending legislation includes measures to reform high school education, improve the collection of data on student achievement, and create systems linking student progress to the evaluation of teachers and administrators, he said.

Many other states had a head start on adopting school reform legislation and preparing for Race to the Top, said Alex Johnston, ConnCAN’s CEO, who attended Thursday’s press conference.

But, he said, “I think we really have a great chance to greatly improve our application. We can study who the finalists were to see exactly what they have done.”

Winners of the first round of grants will be announced in April and selected from the 16 finalists named Thursday. The finalists are: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.

In Connecticut, lawmakers and the various education groups will have to work quickly. The deadline for the next application is June 1.

“We may have our differences, but we need to set those aside and find common ground,” said Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers – Connecticut.

How difficult will the task be?

“The only way we’re going to find out . . . will be to get together and find ways to bridge our differences,” said John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “We’ve never all been in the same room talking about the same issues.”