Race to the Top: Connecticut gets a C competing for federal education funds

Connecticut’s school reform plans got a mediocre grade in the federal Race to the Top competition, the Obama administration reported Monday, putting new pressure on state lawmakers to pass legislation to revamp the state’s public school system.

Out of 40 states and the District of Columbia, Connecticut ranked 25th, well out of the running in the first round of competition for the awards earmarked for school reform.

Nevertheless, state officials expressed hope as Connecticut began gearing up for a second round of awards after only two states – Tennessee and Delaware – were picked from 16 finalists for the first awards. Tennessee won $500 million, Delaware $100 million.

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, states are making aggressive efforts to compete for the money.

“Connecticut really has to step it up,” said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “My jaw dropped when I saw Tennessee received $500 million. We all have to take this very seriously.”

Gaffey said several pending pieces of legislation – including proposals to reform high school education, bolster school data and accountability systems and provide more support for charter schools – are aligned with goals of Race to the Top. One of the more controversial proposals would link teacher and principal evaluations to measures of student progress.

“If we’re able to pass those [bills], our application stands a far better chance,” he said.

Connecticut was one of 40 states applying to the U.S. Department of Education for a grant, and 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.

On its application, Connecticut received 345 points out of a possible 500. Delaware had the highest point total, 455, followed by Tennessee’s 444.

In January, Connecticut submitted a wide-ranging 680-page application seeking $193 million over four years for an extensive reform agenda. That application may have been too broad, said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

“We did a lot – arguably too much,” he told representatives of several statewide education organizations Monday as they began working on a revised application.

McQuillan has supported several of the pending legislative bills. He said the legislation “has moved in a very positive way.”

Alex Johnston, head of the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN, said Connecticut’s score on the first application “does put us in striking distance if we have an aggressive [second] application.”

He said an analysis of the point scores “very clearly makes the case for several of the pieces of legislation the General Assembly is considering.” ConnCAN has lobbied aggressively for the reform bills.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Delaware and Tennessee earned high marks because of commitments to reform “from key stakeholders, including elected officials, teachers’ union leaders, and business leaders,” along with the commitments of all local districts in those states.

In Connecticut, about 60 percent of the state’s school districts, charter schools and regional education agencies signed on. Several smaller districts did not, mainly because they stood to receive only a small amount of money for their commitment to various reforms, said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.

Federal reviewers expressed concern that the state did not get complete support from local districts. In addition, some of the state’s largest local teachers’ unions, including those in Hartford and New Haven, did not offer support.

“The lack of union support in the two largest districts is troubling . . . [and] could slow down or stall reform in these districts,” one reviewer said.

David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, said the union was not opposed to Race to the Top but had too little time to review the reform proposals before the application deadline.

In Hartford, however, the union refused to sign because of fundamental differences with Race to the Top guidelines, mainly the proposals to link teacher evaluations with student performance, said Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers.

“I feel it’s a gun to our head,” she said. “We don’t choose the children who come to our classes.” Especially in poor urban districts such as Hartford, “we have very large numbers of children with special needs,” she said. If the federal government is sincere about helping urban schools, she added, “then give us the money and stop making us jump through hoops.”

The deadline for applications for the second round of Race to the Top grants is June 1. Winners will be announced in September.