Business leaders outline ‘essential’ reforms to close education achievement gap

A group of state business leaders released a set of recommendations today that they say will help narrow the state’s education achievement gap–proposals that are likely to prove both costly and controversial.

The list includes reorganizing how schools are funded, having teacher pay and tenure decisions based on student performance, having longer school days and school years, requiring students pass a set of tests to receive a diploma and providing preschool to more students from low-income families.

“We have to find the political will to get these reforms done,” said Steven Simmons, chairman of the commission appointed earlier this year by Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

education achievement gap

Business leaders from around the state celebrate releasing their recommendations to close the education achievement gap.

Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the U.S. Minority students and those from low-income families routinely score below their white and more affluent classmates on U.S. Department of Education reading and mathematics tests.

This education reform platform — endorsed by past and present business leaders from People’s Bank, New Alliance Bank, The Hartford, Connecticut Business and Industry Association and GE Asset Management Group — contains recommendations that have been controversial in the past, including linking teacher pay and tenure decisions to student performance.

Teacher unions have long been leery of such initiatives.

“We are not opposed entirely to [teacher] evaluations as long as it is fair to teachers, but we are worried the devil will be in the details as it plays out in becoming law,” said Sharon Palmer, head of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut teachers’ union.

But a survey released this week by ConnCAN, a New Haven-based school reform group, says the public is on the side of the business leaders: Almost 90 percent of voters think that salary and tenure decisions should reflect teachers’ performance, including their students’ progress.

“Excellence in teaching is the most important thing to closing that achievement gap,” said Ramani Ayer, retired chief executive officer of The Hartford and member of the commission.

Whether teacher pay will be linked to student progress could come down to who is elected the state’s next governor.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy has said he supports measuring teacher performance, but has stopped short of endorsing the idea that teachers be compensated based on the grade they receive. Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley has been vocal in his support of performance pay.

The cost of change

Even with the state facing a projected $3.3 billion deficit in the next fiscal year, commission members said reforms can and should be implemented soon.

“Both candidates have stated they are not satisfied with the status quo,” said Simmons, noting that Foley and Malloy met with the commission as it developed the recommendations. “A lot of our recommendations won’t cost money. Some of our recommendations will actually save money and in other areas it’s just essential that we do invest more.”

The areas the commission is recommending more be invested for students from low-income families include:

  • Full-day kindergarten
  • More remediation for 40,000 students
  • Longer school days and an extended school year
  • More subsidies for preschool for low-income students
  • Programs to attract highly qualified teachers in defined shortage areas

Rell said in a statement she anticipates some of the recommendations “would require steep funding. …There may be approaches recommended that could be implemented as a pilot program on a small scale to gauge their effectiveness.”

Thomas Murphy, spokesman for the State Department of Education, said many of these ideas have long been supported by the school board and commissioner, but “We only have so many resources. We can’t expand pre-Kindergarten programs because the money just isn’t there to do it.”

The SDE has estimated it would cost $100 million to expand pre-K programs to 9,000 more low-income students. Simmons estimates it will cost $40 million to provide remediation programs to 40,000 students.

And while several of the commission’s ideas are laudable, James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, worries that the costs will have to be carried by the towns if the legislature mandates them without adequate funding.

“Towns are already dramatically underfunded by the state,” he said, noting the state last school year covered just 38 percent of education costs, well short of the 50-50 goal of cost sharing with local school districts.

But Simmons, founder of Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications in Greenwich, said readjusting and more fairly dispersing the $1.9 billion in cost-sharing grants will help pay for some of these initiatives. Also, the report recommends reevaluating the estimated $600 million spent each year by the state for other education programs and possibly reallocating it towards these initiatives.

“In this time of fiscal constraint it is critical that we allocate the funds we have to best meet student needs,” he said. “The amount of funding received by districts was intended to take into account students’ needs and wealth of the city or town. But the years of caps and other adjustments has made it little to do with the actual costs.”

The commission also recommends students be given the opportunity to leave failing schools, “rather than being trapped in schools that may not be serving them well.”

The commission also recommends that when a student leaves a school, state funding follows– a proposal Finley said CCM’s 144 member towns strongly oppose.

“Both schools deserve the money. Money follows the child is like advocating robbing one school to pay for another. It doesn’t make it right,” he said. “These schools are already underfunded and this could have devastating affects. Schools like New Haven or Bridgeport would loose a lot of money.”

The state’s teachers unions have also spoken out against the idea.

Foley’s education plan emphasizes school choice and links 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.

ConnCAN reports that 76 percent of those surveyed believe money should follow the student, to whatever school they attend.

Malloy has not supported money following the student in his education policy plan, but does recommend revamping how the state finances public education. He wants to reform school districts’ number one source of income – property tax – and have the state be a bigger player in funding education by reaching the 50-50 cost sharing goal with towns for education.

But with a $3.3 billion deficit projected for the coming year, and $700 million more needed to be pitched in from the state for them to reach the 50 percent goal, Finley is not too optimistic.

“Now where exactly is that money going to come from?” he asked.

School reform has been a major issue in Connecticut this year. The legislature last spring passed a sweeping education bill as part of an effort to win millions of federal dollars, but the state was eliminated from the competition.

Even with the new law, both gubernatorial candidates have said the state still has a ways to go and they plan to study the commission’s report closely.

“We need a governor who is going to lead this drive. … I want to be your education governor,” Malloy said during a debate at Fairfield University Tuesday.

Foley said the commission’s recommendations are the same ones he has endorsed.

“I agree completely with the findings of this commission,” he said.

Whether Foley or Malloy is elected the state’s next governor, Simmons hopes the commission’s 65 recommendations will be their “blueprint for reform.”