School reform contingency threatens new ‘Race to the Top’ bid, some officials say

When lawmakers revised a bill on high school reform recently, they inserted a provision that jeopardizes the state’s bid to win millions of dollars in federal stimulus money, some state officials believe.

The revised bill calls for expanded high school graduation requirements–but only if the state wins the federal grant.

That contingency could prove costly when federal reviewers analyze Connecticut’s latest application for up to $175 million in the Race to the Top competition, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion incentive program to spur innovative school reforms.

“It sends a signal to the reviewers there is no real commitment to taking these steps unless they are painless,” said Allan Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education. “I think it harms our chances greatly.”

The bill is one of several pieces of education legislation designed to align with the goals of Race to the Top as the state revises its grant application in a second attempt to win the stimulus funds.

Connecticut finished well out of the running when the U.S. Department of Education announced winners of the first round of grants last month.

Out of 40 states and the District of Columbia in the competition, only two states – Tennessee and Delaware – were picked from 16 finalists for the first awards. Tennessee won $500 million, Delaware $100 million.

Connecticut’s application was ranked 25th by federal reviewers, but state officials have expressed hope that a revised application, along with the passage of strong school reform laws, will significantly improve chances of winning in a second phase of the competition.

With state budgets suffering through the nation’s slumping economy, several states already have made aggressive efforts to compete for the money.

In Connecticut, the state’s mounting budget deficit has made lawmakers reluctant to pass school reforms that would add new burdens to state or local budgets. Because new graduation requirements would require some local school districts to pay for additional training or more teachers, some legislators opposed it. Thus the contingency clause.

“The passage of a bill without conditions would be ideal, but there is no stomach for that because people see it as an unfunded mandate,” said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

“I understand it. I don’t agree with it,” said McQuillan, who tried unsuccessfully a year ago to get similar legislation passed.

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee altered the reform proposal, making it contingent on federal funding because “to mandate our local authorities to take it on we felt would be very difficult,” said state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, the committee’s co-chairman.

Nevertheless, Harp said she would have supported the measure without the restriction, and she urged the State Board of Education, including Taylor, “to engage in the debate around this bill. . . . There is time to fix it.”

The bill, including expanded requirements in subjects such as science and technology, “is inextricably intertwined with Race to the Top,” said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Education Committee.

He, too, said he opposes placing conditions on the reforms, such as making them contingent on federal funding.

“We should not have that language in the bill,” he said.

At the U.S. Department of Education, Press Secretary Justin Hamilton would not comment on specific legislation or on whether placing financial restrictions on school reforms would affect a state’s chances in the competition. Nevertheless, he said, “We said we were going to set a high bar, and we meant it. It’s not called ‘Race to the Middle.'”