McQuillan criticizes U.S. education reform strategy

The state’s top education official has criticized an Obama administration plan that would force states to compete for federal education grants, saying it would create a nation of winners and losers in school reform.

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said Connecticut’s recent failure to qualify for millions of dollars in the federal Race to the Top competition illustrates the pitfalls of such contests.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did not include Connecticut last month among a list of finalists for Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion competition designed to spur school reform and improve low-performing schools.

The state failed to qualify despite a sweeping school reform package passed by the state legislature in May. It was the second time Connecticut failed to make the cut. An earlier application also was rejected in March.

“It was very disappointing to come up short again, particularly after all the work that went into building our second application. We invested thousands of hours into rewriting and rethinking our proposal,” McQuillan said in his letter to Dodd.

Congress is set to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act. However, the U.S. Department of Education has proposed sweeping changes to the law including an emphasis on competitive grants for federally targeted reforms, much like the Race to the Top competition.

Only two states – Tennessee and Delaware – won grants under the first round of Race to the Top. Officials estimate that 10 to 15 states could be awarded grants when the next round of winners is announced.

McQuillan urged Dodd and other members of the state’s Congressional delegation to oppose an approach emphasizing competitive grants.

“With Race to the Top, we are now making winning and losing an acceptable strategy for solving the problems of poor children,” McQuillan wrote.

“As one state that is not in the winners’ circle, but with issues of urban poverty that will rival any state’s, it’s hard for me to see how advantaging some and not all is in the best interest of unity and commonality of purpose,” he said.