State filing new bid for millions in federal education funds

After an unsuccessful first try, Connecticut’s second effort to win millions of dollars in federal education funds arrives in Washington, D.C today with much better odds, the state’s top education official says.

Backed by a broad new education law, greater support from local school officials, and a coalition of public and private partners, the state put together an education reform package that improves significantly on an earlier plan, Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said.

At CTCommons: Will towns get stuck with the bill?

The state will deliver a massive package–a 303-page application and nearly 1,000 pages of appendices–in time for today’s deadline in the federal Race to the Top competition, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion incentive program to spur school reforms.

The application is nearly twice the length of the one submitted by Connecticut in January in the first round of the competition. In that round, Connecticut finished well out of the running – 25th out of 40 states and the District of Columbia.

“This is no longer a C-plus application,” McQuillan said. “This is an A application.”

Only two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded grants in the first round. U.S. Department of Education evaluators gave Connecticut a score of 345 points out of a possible 500. Delaware had the highest point total, 455, followed by Tennessee’s 444.

Connecticut is seeking up to $175 million over a four-year period, and this time McQuillan believes the state has made some crucial adjustments.

The biggest change is a sweeping new education law passed by the legislature earlier this month and signed last week by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The law is designed specifically to align with goals of Race to the Top, taking steps such as eliminating enrollment limits on charter schools, improving procedures for collecting school data, and creating a system that links teacher evaluations with student progress.

The law imposes more rigorous high school graduation requirements, including additional credits in mathematics, science and foreign language. Starting with the Class of 2018, students also will be required to complete a senior project and pass graduation exams in algebra, geometry, biology, American history and English.

In addition, the law gives parents more influence in school governance, creates a new model for experimental “innovation schools,” and gives McQuillan additional authority to step into local districts to turn around struggling schools.

“If the legislation had not passed,” McQuillan said, “I think we would not have been competitive.”

Today’s application also drew significantly greater support from local school districts. All but a handful of small districts signed on, as did most local teachers’ unions.

On Connecticut’s earlier application, federal reviewers had expressed concern that only about 60 percent of the state’s school districts, charter schools and regional education agencies signed on. In addition, some of the state’s largest local teachers’ unions, including those in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport failed to endorse the application.

This time, officials secured signatures of most local unions – with one major exception. The Hartford Federation of Teachers, in the midst of a contentious dispute over the school district’s attempt to restrict seniority rules, refused to join the district in endorsing the Race to the Top application.

The revised application also includes what McQuillan describes as a more efficient system for putting the education reforms in place – a system that enlists the help of public and private sector partners such as outside education agencies, business organizations, nonprofit groups and others.

Those organizations will lead partnerships in six general areas that McQuillan calls “levers of change.” They include: family and community involvement; professional training; teacher and principal accountability; curriculum innovation and technology; high school, college and workforce alignment; and long-term financing for reform.

Unlike the earlier application – a kind of smorgasbord of ideas and plans – the revised package is more focused approach that weaves together various strategies to promote and measure student progress from preschool to college, McQuillan said.

“It’s a tapestry now. It’s got texture,” McQuillan said as he put the final touches on the package late last week.

The U.S. Department of Education expects to announce winners of Race to the Top grants in August or September. As many as 10 to 15 states could win grants from what is expected to be a smaller field of competitors.

States such as Minnesota, Kansas, Indiana and Vermont have indicated they are not planning to take part on the second round of competition.

“I like our chances,” McQuillan said.

“There were 41 [entrants] last time,” he said. “I think the list is going to drop to 33, maybe 35. I know this [application] is as good as any of the others.”