Foley education plan emphasizes school choice

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley unveiled a sweeping education plan Wednesday calling for fundamental changes in the state’s public schools, including a controversial proposal on how to pay for them.

Foley’s plan is centered on a philosophy of making public education more accountable to market forces. It would reallocate state funds to successful schools, for example, and give parents more choices such as charter schools, magnet schools or even schools in other districts.

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Tom Foley speaks with 7th-graders Raychel Morris (right) and Vance Murphy at Achievement First Hartford Academy (Robert A. Frahm)

Despite a deep state fiscal crisis, Foley pledged to maintain existing levels of support for schools but left little doubt that he plans to shake up the state’s public education system, possibly including the office of the state education commissioner.

“I hope I become known not only as the jobs governor in Connecticut, but as the education governor,” Foley said during a stop at Achievement First Hartford Academy, a charter school in Hartford.

Nevertheless, Foley’s education platform – particularly a proposal to revamp the state’s school finance structure – is certain to be resisted by many in the education establishment. The proposal would link school funding directly to each student, sending state aid and local tax support to whatever school the student attends – a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example.

The money-follows-the-student plan has been championed by the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN but has drawn criticism from teacher unions, school boards and others, mainly because it would bolster aid for some schools while taking away money from others.

Critics fear it would drain money from regular public schools at a time when schools are facing worsening budget strains.

Foley, however, described the system as “a marketplace where parents are choosing, selecting schools that they think are doing the best job for their children. . . . We don’t want to be funding failure. We want to be funding success.”

However, he said he does not support giving parents vouchers to send their children to private schools. “I support choice, particularly in districts where public schools are not meeting threshold levels of performance,” he said. “I believe we can provide that choice with magnet schools, charter schools and the opportunity to attend an excellent school in another district.”

Among other recommendations in Foley’s plan is an accountability system that would include student progress as a factor in evaluating teachers and principals. He said those evaluations, rather than seniority, should be used in making decisions about pay and promotion – a position likely to put Foley at odds with teacher unions.

“I understand that,” Foley said, “but I also believe that teachers fundamentally go into teaching because they’re concerned about the interests of our children. . . . If we have a policy that makes sense and have aspects of that policy that clearly will benefit children, I expect teachers and their representatives to support those policies.”

Foley also supported requiring graduation or end-of-course exams – a policy that was included in an education reform bill passed by the legislature earlier this year.

Foley said he wants Connecticut to restore its reputation as one of the top-performing states on national tests of reading and mathematics, noting that test scores have fallen behind those of some other states, notably Massachusetts. He cited Massachusetts and Florida as models for reform. He said he favors a system such as one used in Florida that gives schools grades of A to F and revamps those that perform poorly.

He said the state missed opportunities for more funding when it was eliminated recently from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top school reform competition. The state had applied for $175 million but did not make a list of finalists while neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York all were winners of the federal grants.

Under Connecticut law, the governor appoints members of the State Board of Education, and Foley said he would appoint members who would concur with him on who should fill the office of state education commissioner.

Later, he declined to say whether he would prefer to keep Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan on the job. “I have not made any decisions in that area,” he said, “but I would want somebody who is reform-minded and supported my plan and had the same sense of urgency as I do about fixing schools in Connecticut that are not working.”

 Dan Malloy, the Democratic candidate for governor, issued a statement Wednesday criticizing Foley’s plan.

“I welcome Tom to the discussion about education, but I think there are some real deficiencies in his plan.  There’s nothing on early childhood education, very little on parental involvement, and not a word about higher education,” Malloy said.

He said the proposal “demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding that education is a lifelong process.”

In response to a question at Wednesday’s press conference, Foley said he would support additional preschool programs. On higher education issues, he said he is planning to issue a separate policy report.