Race to the Top loss could delay education reforms, officials say

Connecticut’s failure to qualify for a coveted federal education grant could delay the effort to reform the state’s public schools but will not end it, officials pledged Tuesday.

Educators and lawmakers expressed disappointment when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did not include Connecticut among a list of finalists for millions of dollars under Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion competition designed to spur school reform.

Eighteen other states–including New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts–and the District of Columbia were chosen to advance to the next round, with 10 to 15 grant winners expected to be identified in September.

The announcement came despite a sweeping school reform package passed by the state legislature earlier this year in hopes of bolstering Connecticut’s chances of winning $175 million in Race to the Top funds.

The prospect of winning the money was especially alluring in light of a state fiscal crisis that is likely to mean teacher layoffs, school closings and other financial strains over the next several years. Against that backdrop, paying for new reforms could be daunting.

“I think it’s inevitable we will see pressure to move back the timelines for various reforms we enacted this spring,” said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

Among the changes called for in the state’s reform package are a new teacher evaluation system, increased high school graduation requirements, and strengthened charter schools. Education advocates and state leaders hailed the new law but said federal funding would be necessary to help put these new measures into place.

The reforms could require the hiring of as many as 380 additional teachers statewide at a cost of nearly $21 million, according to an estimate by the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis. Another $7 million is projected in training costs related to the new teacher evaluation program.

At the State Department of Education, officials had been making plans to go to Washington to make the state’s case as a finalist. Tuesday’s announcement ended those plans.

“I’m very, very disappointed,” Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said. The state’s application, he said, was considerably stronger than an initial application last January that was submitted before lawmakers passed reforms that he called “path-breaking legislation.” That application also was unsuccessful in an earlier round of competition for the Race to the Top grants.

“There were a lot of big changes that had taken place between January and June,” McQuillan said. “I’m very puzzled in terms of what were the factors that didn’t bring us closer to those who made the finalists.”

McQuillan said the state will proceed with reforms “within the framework of what our budget permits.” That includes the creation of new curriculum standards and development of a better data system to track student progress, he said. “The way you begin is to do those things that are essential . . . and begin a slow implementation of other initiatives.”

The expanded high school graduation requirements, for example, will not take full effect until the class of 2018. Even though today’s economy is bad, “that’s no reason to abandon an eight-year target,” McQuillan said.

As Secretary Duncan announced the finalists at a press conference in Washington, D.C., he was asked how states that failed win federal grant money can move ahead on enacting reforms. He said they should look at other competitive grant programs available from the federal Department of Education, citing, for example, the Teacher Incentive Fund, which offers grants to high-needs schools that implement performance-based teacher and principal compensation plans.

“There are multiple sources … as well as their own [state] money,” Duncan said. “This reform needs to keep going, and I really encourage them to do that.”

But Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits in the House Education and Labor Committee, said Tuesday’s announcement raised questions about the validity of the Race to the Top program and the Obama Administration’s increasing emphasis on competitive grants.

“Today’s disappointing decision by Sec. Duncan only heightens the serious questions I have been raising about the Administration’s one-size-fits-all approach to education funding,” Courtney said in a statement.”In light of today’s decision, I am more concerned than ever about the direction he wants to take America’s schools. I will continue to work with Commissioner McQuillan and other education leaders to examine the Department of Education’s decision, and we will redouble our efforts to secure Connecticut’s fair share of funding.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, went further, blasting the Race to the Top program as misguided, saying it is the “wrong approach at the wrong time” and is an extra burden on schools at a time when many are already struggling.

“After jumping through bureaucratic hoops and even passing a new state law, Connecticut has not been selected as a finalist for this controversial program, which will pit states against other states, encouraging an ultimately destructive competition that will drain funding and resources from under-performing states and leave our neediest students, those who are from low-income families or minorities, further behind,” DeLauro said in a statement. “Schools that encounter difficulties will be punished instead of aided, and will be forced to implement reforms without resources.”

If school districts are to adopt the reforms, they will expect financial support from the state, said John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“I believe the legislature will have to look at the cost of some of the reforms and determine whether it will be feasible to fund them,” he said.

Still, Yrchik praised the collaboration of various education groups in shaping the reform legislation and reaching consensus even though their views sometimes differed sharply. “I believe we produced what was very good public policy,” he said, adding that Connecticut had a broader base of support for the reforms than in some of the states that made the list of finalists.

“Connecticut’s approach,” he said, “was the winning formula even though we didn’t get the money.”

State officials will not know where Connecticut fell short until the U.S. Department of Education announces the winners of the competition and reports on the applications of individual states.

“We all knew this was a competition, and Connecticut had a lot of ground to cover,” said Alex Johnston, head of the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN. He said the failure to qualify for Race to the Top should be “a clarion call for the next governor. . . . The legislation was a real foundation to build on. Unfortunately, what we see today is we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

The exclusion of Connecticut from the list was “a profoundly disappointing decision,” Gov. M. Jodi Rell said.

“We submitted a very strong application that offered a clear blueprint for achieving our goals,” she said.

“This decision is an affront to all the dedicated individuals who worked long and hard to make our case. However, it cannot and will not lessen our commitment in providing the best education we can for our children.”

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, said the reforms passed by the legislature last spring “were about good public policy and not necessarily about the federal money.

“While today’s decision is disappointing . . . we can’t lose sight of the overall goal in Connecticut,” said Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “If we don’t make these changes and take this seriously and address the issue of the achievement gap and turn around the dropout rate, it’s going to have a devastating effect on our ability to compete.”

He added, “We’ll make as many changes as we can make with the money we have.”

One lawmaker who said he was not surprised by today’s announcement was Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who blamed Democrats for what he called a weakened education reform bill.

“Democrats stopped real reform by bending to special interests,” he said.

He also blamed McQuillan. “The commissioner’s endorsement of the Democrats’ watered down education bill, his over-confidence in our application, and his failure to fight for additional measures that would have helped to ensure our success has made him an obstructionist to necessary education reform as well,” McKinney said.