Connecticut watches neighboring states win ‘Race to the Top’

Connecticut’s neighboring states of New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are among 10 winners of the second round of the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top school reform competition.

Connecticut failed last month to make a list of 19 finalists for the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion competition designed to improve low-performing schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced awards today for Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.

Two other states – Tennessee and Delaware – won awards in an earlier round of competition.

Connecticut failed to qualify for up to $175 million in Race to the Top funds 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.

Connecticut’s latest application received a score of 379 points of a possible 500 – an improvement of 34 points over the score on its earlier application, according to results released today. Nevertheless, out of 36 applicants, Connecticut ranked 25th – the same rank it held in the first round of competition.

Massachusetts scored 471 points, the highest score in the second round. New York had the second highest score, and Rhode Island the fifth.

“I do think Massachusetts has done an extraordinarily good job with its education reform act over the last decade,” said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan. “I’m not at all surprised.”

McQuillan said he plans to do “a fine-grained analysis of our scores. I’m not happy to think we couldn’t get close to 400 points. I thought we would.”

Alex Johnston, chief executive officer of the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN, said, “Our neighboring states really all had significant progress. We are really now surrounded by winners. These are states that have all the challenges we have.”

Race to the Top is designed to address a chronic achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority students lagging far behind their white and more affluent classmates. Connecticut has some of the largest gaps in the nation.

Johnston, who was part of a group that helped shape the state’s education reform bill, said the reform efforts in the winning states were largely influenced by governors while Connecticut’s reforms came out of the legislature.

“The legislature certainly did its part in Connecticut,” he said. “The real missing piece was executive branch leadership.”

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who is not seeking re-election, has drawn criticism from Johnston and others for keeping a low profile during the debate over reform.

Dan Malloy, Democratic nominee for governor, issued a press release calling today’s announcement “a reminder that Connecticut has shown a complete inability to compete against other states – including its immediate regional competitors – for federal funding.

“We can’t keep losing like this,” he said.

Later, in a telephone interview, Malloy said the governor should have taken a leading role. “That’s how it’s done in other states,” he said.

Some, including Commissioner McQuillan, have criticized the federal strategy of making states compete for education funds, saying it creates a nation of winners and losers in school reform.

State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said he had doubts about the competition even before Connecticut failed to qualify as a finalist.

“This whole Race to the Top process – I’m no longer a believer in it,” said Fleischmann, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

He said some of the reform models for which states are being rewarded in the federal competition are unproven. He said, for example, that charter schools, an approach favored by the Obama administration, have produced mixed results in research studies.

The competition “leaves 39 states receiving zero dollars out of a [$4.3] billion dollar pot, and there are literally millions of students at risk in those 39 states,” Fleischmann said. “It does not make sense to pit states against one another.”

In Connecticut, educators and lawmakers have said the failure to win the federal funds could delay some of the reforms in the education legislation passed in the spring.

Under those reforms, the state is scheduled to impose more rigorous high school graduation requirements, ease restrictions on charter schools, create a fast-track system for training and licensing school principals, revamp the state’s education data collection system, and establish a system to evaluate teachers based in part on how their students perform.

In addition, the legislation requires low-performing schools to establish governance councils of parents, teachers, and community leaders with the authority to recommend a complete overhaul of schools that consistently fail to improve.

Federal officials pledged to work with all of the applicants, including those states that were not awarded funds.

“We had many more competitive applications than money to fund them in this round,” Duncan said. “We’re very hopeful there will be a Phase 3 of Race to the Top and have requested $1.35 billion dollars in next year’s budget. In the meantime, we will partner with each and every state that applied to help them find ways to carry out the bold reforms they’ve proposed in their applications.”