Lamont jabs at education leaders

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont’s plan for aggressive reforms in Connecticut’s schools includes a shakeup in education leadership, starting with the State Board of Education and, possibly, the state’s top education official.

The plan calls for removing “partisan appointees” on state boards governing education and higher education, replacing them with “people who are really committed to education [and] education reform, people who’ve been involved in the schools,” Lamont said Thursday.

In a campaign stop in Hartford, Lamont outlined a plan called “Better Schools for Better Jobs,” saying he wants strong educational leaders, including a state education commissioner who will work closely with the governor’s office to make education a key component in the state’s economic plans.

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Ned Lamont, Mary Glassman in Hartford. (Robert A. Frahm)

He stopped short, however, of saying whether he would keep Commissioner Mark McQuillan in the job.

“I’m going to take a fresh look at that. Let’s see how we do on Race to the Top,” he said, referring to the state’s recent application in the Obama administration’s competition for millions of dollars in federal school reform money.

He said the state got off to a slow start in the Race to the Top competition but that a sweeping reform bill passed by the legislature in the spring improved Connecticut’s chances.

Asked about McQuillan, he said, “I’m going to reserve judgment. I’m not going there, but I do think you understand that I want somebody who’s going to be a strong, pro-active commissioner.”

In front of Hartford’s M.D. Fox Elementary School, Lamont and running mate Mary Glassman talked about a plan that calls for strong preschool programs, better teacher training programs, more parental involvement and greater accountability for schools and teachers.

“Education will be an extraordinary priority,” Lamont told a small gathering of parents and others at the school, one of a handful of urban schools across the state in an experimental program known as CommPACT. The program, coordinated by the University of Connecticut, gives an unusual degree of authority to teams of parents, teachers and administrators in making decisions about staffing, school hours, curriculum and other matters.

Lamont said schools such as Fox illustrate that “it takes more than a teacher, more than a student who we’re holding accountable, more than a great principal. It also takes leadership. . . . We can’t get real reform done unless the community, unless the parents are involved.”

In his plan, Lamont, a Greenwich businessman, also recommends support for technical high schools and for stronger connections between colleges and businesses, including internships, “so students graduate with the skills to land a great job.”

The state, he said, should make sure “that our kids have the best access to science and math and engineering so we can rebuild our roads and bridges, so that we can make sure they’re prepared for the 21st century jobs in life sciences and biotech.”

In explaining Lamont’s proposal to call for the resignations of members of both the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors for Higher Education, a campaign press release said, “While many members are excellent, others are mere partisan appointees.”

That characterization drew a sharp response from Janet Finneran, vice chairman of the State Board of Education. “I think he was completely inaccurate,” she said later Thursday. “I have served on the board now for close to 16 years, and I have not run into even one situation where partisan politics decided any issue whatsoever.”

Lamont is endorsed by the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association. He may have offended Finneran, but his education plan stays away from measures that would inflame teachers, who tend to be an important constituency in Democratic primaries. And he defends urban teachers, such as the ones he met while volunteering at Harding High School in Bridgeport.

“I will ensure student achievement is one of multiple aspects of teacher evaluation,” he said in his plan. “Scores matter, but they’re far from the whole picture: for instance, teachers shouldn’t be on the hook for children who arrive in class just a few months before testing, as so many of my students at Harding High did.”

The biggest education challenge facing the next governor will be how to pay for public schools in the face of a massive projected state budget deficit and the impending loss of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money. School districts already have begun to lay off teachers, cut popular programs and, in some cases, close schools to deal with the crisis.

Lamont faces former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy in the Democratic primary  Aug. 10. Both candidates have pledged to try to maintain existing levels of support for public schools.

“We’re going to do everything we can, at least at a minimum, to hold our schools harmless,” Lamont said Thursday. He proposed ending some mandates, sharing regional services among schools, and focusing on property tax reform in the effort to cut costs.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep the teachers in the classroom and make some savings elsewhere in the system,” he said.