New ‘Race’ push could reshape education in state

Connecticut failed in its first try to win millions of dollars in federal stimulus money for school reform, but its second attempt could lead to some of the most significant changes in public schools in years.

The legislature’s Education Committee will hold a public hearing today on a dozen bills on school finance, teacher evaluations, charter schools and other reforms that officials believe will improve the state’s chances in the second round of the federal Race to the Top competition.

Johnston, Alex

ConnCAN’s Alex Johnston: An aggressive school reform campaign

Several of the bills are specifically designed to meet guidelines for Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s effort to spur reform in America’s schools. The bills – backed by various educators, lawmakers and advocacy groups – contain proposals that could shake up the state’s public education system.

For example:

  • The New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN is backing several bills, including proposals that would allow for the expansion of charter schools, link teacher evaluations to student performance, and revamp the state’s system of financing public schools.
  • The legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus is supporting legislation calling for a variety of reforms to address lagging student achievement, including a plan that would allow parents to petition to reorganize or even close failing schools.
  • State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan is pushing a bill that would bolster graduation requirements, establish end-of-course examinations and add provisions for online coursework as part of an extensive high school reform package.

In Race to the Top, the Obama administration is offering 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, once considered a leader in school reform, failed to qualify for the first round of Race to the Top grants while the neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York were among the 16 finalists.

“Since Race to the Top was first announced, it has had a profound effect on this state and most states,” said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. “The failure to win the first round helped focus some people’s attention more than it had been focused.”

After the finalists were announced, Fleischmann and state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairmen of the legislature’s Education Committee, assembled a coalition that includes McQuillan, teachers’ unions, ConnCAN and other groups to rewrite the state’s reform plan and propose legislation that could improve Connecticut’s chances when it applies for a second round of the federal stimulus grants.

Members of the coalition often have sharp differences of opinion over education policy, but lawmakers hope the group can reach consensus. Some of those differences are likely to surface at today’s hearing, where Gaffey said he expects “spirited and animated testimony.”

No group has waged a more aggressive reform campaign than ConnCAN, which has used Race to the Top to build support for its own agenda, including its advocacy for charter schools, the experimental public schools that are free of most administrative and union rules.

Among the most controversial bills is a ConnCAN proposal that would revamp the state’s school finance structure, calling for a system that would link school funding directly to each student, sending state aid and local tax support to whatever school the student attends – a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example.

That idea – allowing the money to follow the student – already has generated controversy, and the bill is believed to have little chance of passing this year.

Because the plan would produce winners and losers – bolstering aid for some schools while taking away money from others – it has drawn criticism from representatives of teachers’ unions, school boards and others who fear it would drain money from regular public schools at a time when schools are facing worsening budget strains.

ConnCAN officials, however, say it would make school funding more equitable by putting specialty schools such as charters and magnets on equal footing with traditional public schools. It also would bolster the state’s chances in Race to the Top, ConnCAN says.

ConnCAN had been sharply critical of the state’s first application for the federal money but has taken an upbeat tone as it lobbies for the new legislation.

“What’s exciting at this point,” said Alex Johnston, the group’s CEO, “is that the legislature and Education Committee are taking a very encouraging, active direction designed to . . . speak directly to our competitiveness in Race to the Top.”

Nevertheless, he said, “Having a hearing is one thing. Having a bill passed into law is another.”

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.

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.