Malloy outlines education plans–but where’s the money?

If Dan Malloy is to win support for his ambitious plan to revitalize Connecticut’s education system, he will have to persuade some doubters.

The Democratic candidate for governor outlined ideas such as expanding preschool classes, promoting innovation and increasing college graduation rates, but the 15-page education plan released Monday is likely to face steep challenges.

The biggest challenge is how to pay for it.

Many educators remain fearful that the state budget crisis and the end of federal stimulus funds will mean more layoffs, larger class sizes and additional school closings, but Malloy pledged to work to stabilize school budgets.

malloy and Wyman, 6/29/10

Dan Malloy and Nancy Wyman talk about their education proposals (Robert A. Frahm)

“I remain committed to building a different way, a fairer way of supporting education in the state of Connecticut,” Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, said at a press conference in Hartford.

Alongside his running mate, state Comptroller Nancy Wyman, Malloy talked about restoring stability in education funding by finding savings in other parts of the state budget, limiting administrative costs in schools and reforming the property tax system.

One of Malloy’s key proposals is to begin raising the level of state funding for schools toward a longstanding goal of 50-50 share of school costs with local districts, but that will be a daunting task as the state projects a $3.4 billion deficit by 2012. Last year, the state covered about 42 percent of school costs while local districts paid more than 52 percent, with the remainder coming from other sources.

Lawmakers avoided decreasing state aid to local schools this year by using about $270 million in federal stimulus money to plug a hole in the state’s main education grant, but those funds are expected to dry up in 2011.

Officials say the state share for the 2009-10 school year has not yet been calculated but is expected to slip lower.

“I am, quite frankly, embarrassed . . . that we’ve become a state that is even more dependent on property taxes to pay for education,” Malloy said. “What we need to do is tackle that issue.”

Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said, “If he can get [the state share] to 50 percent, school districts would be very pleased about that. It would take a considerable amount of money off of local property taxpayers.”

But, Rader said, “where are we going to go for money? . . . None of [the candidates] have real answers. I don’t see it.”

Bringing the state’s share of funding to a 50-50 level would require more than $1 billion in additional school spending, something not expected to happen anytime soon.

“I’d love to see us at 50-50,” said Sharon Palmer, head of the American Federation of Teachers – Connecticut teachers’ union.  “We got close in 1989. It went downhill from there. We’ve got a long way to go.”

“It won’t happen overnight,” Malloy said later Monday. “It’s a sizeable hole we’re in. It’s going to be tough, and there is a cost in dollars, but the alternative is unacceptable.”

As a start, Malloy said he would produce a budget that fills the gap left when federal stimulus money runs out. Stimulus funds accounted for about 14 percent of this year’s Education Cost Sharing grant, the state’s largest grant to local municipalities.

“We’re not going to allow that 14 percent cut,” he said.

Malloy called for innovation in schools, including a voluntary testing program that would allow high school juniors to measure their readiness for college level math and English and to design a senior year curriculum to make up for any deficiencies.

“We are graduating far too many students from Connecticut schools who . . . are required to take remedial courses” in college, he said.

Malloy called for stronger connections between high schools and colleges and recommended allowing some community colleges to begin offering four-year degrees.

Malloy also proposed:

  • Expanding preschool programs to make them “available to all children in the state of Connecticut who otherwise could not afford it.” When Malloy was mayor of Stamford, the city became the first in Connecticut to offer preschool classes to all four-year-olds, he said. “There is no doubt that this will cost money, but I also believe that . . .  it’s perhaps the most cost effective way to lower the achievement gap that exists in the state of Connecticut.”
  • Maintaining the state’s commitment to college scholarships for needy students in public and private colleges.
  • Creating more opportunities for involving parents in schools, including release time from work for school-related activities.
  • Improving teacher evaluation systems through programs such as one being tried in New Haven, where the teachers’ union and school district have agreed to develop a system in which schools will use student progress as a factor in judging teachers.
  • Creating more experimental public charter schools as a means of fostering innovation.
  • Reducing administrative costs in higher education. He said national studies indicate that administrative costs “have been increasing faster than the investment in instruction.” He cited the example of Maryland, where educators and state officials gained national attention for a cost-cutting program that began several years ago and helped the University System of Maryland and Morgan State University freeze tuition for four years.

Despite the ambitious education plan, Malloy did not win the endorsement of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. The 40,000-member CEA endorsed Ned Lamont, Malloy’s opponent in the Democratic primary election Aug. 10.

Nevertheless, Malloy said Monday, “What I believe is, if you showed our plan to most teachers, most administrators . . . they would be supportive of it.”