Malloy: No decision yet on filling state’s top education post

State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan is expected to get a temporary extension as the state’s top education official today, but his long-term status under Gov.-elect Dan Malloy remains uncertain.

Malloy said Tuesday he has heard from several prospective applicants for the job, including some with national credentials, but he was noncommittal about McQuillan’s future.

“I don’t know Mark particularly well, so I’ll reserve judgment,” he said.

McQuillan’s term is set to expire Jan. 5 when Malloy takes office, but the State Board of Education is expected to vote today to extend McQuillan’s appointment until the board fills the position on a permanent basis.

Malloy said he hopes the job will be filled soon after he takes office.

The job will be a crucial appointment as the state’s public schools struggle to survive a deep financial crisis while also trying to close one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps for minority and low-income students.

Malloy said he is looking for a commissioner who is “a proven change agent, somebody who’s willing to play a leadership role along with the governor . . . making sure that we reverse some of these very damaging trends.”

Under state law, the governor appoints a commissioner after receiving a recommendation from the state board. Malloy also will reshape the board, making several new appointments to fill vacancies.

Terms will expire in February for five board members, and three other recently-appointed members have not yet been confirmed by the General Assembly. In effect, that gives Malloy authority to appoint eight of the board’s 11 voting members.

“The tradition in Connecticut is when we have a new governor, we have a new commissioner, but I have no way of knowing whether that is the case this time,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

McQuillan, who came under criticism recently when the state failed to qualify for a major grant in the federal Race to the Top competition, has said he would like to remain on the job.

“I absolutely want to remain the commissioner,” he said, adding he has begun reaching out to Malloy’s staff.

Allan Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, said the board is expected to extend McQuillan’s term while it considers candidates for the permanent job, possibly including McQuillan.

“I can’t speak for the new board. I think he certainly should be considered, but this really is a decision the new board has to make,” Taylor said.

Malloy, who also can appoint the board chairman, would not say whether he plans to keep Taylor in that post. Taylor, a Hartford attorney, has been chairman since 2005. His term on the board expires in 2013.

“I know Allan Taylor, and I respect him,” Malloy said, “but I’m not prejudging anything.”

McQuillan has overseen the expansion of preschool education, something that Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, has made a priority.

“I have a real passion for early childhood education,” Malloy said. “Anyone I appoint has to share that passion.”

McQuillan also has pushed for high school reform and helped shape a major school reform law that was passed by the legislature earlier this year. Among other things, the law expands graduation requirements, calls for graduation exams, and requires students to complete a senior project.

McQuillan came under fire recently because the state failed to qualify for a portion of the $4.3 billion federal pot of money for states to reform education, known as the Race to the Top competition.

Connecticut failed even to make a list of finalists while neighboring states of Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island all won grants.

Malloy has routinely expressed his displeasure with the state’s inability to capture federal money for various projects, but he said does not intend to blame McQuillan for the state’s rejected Race to the Top application.

“It’s not as if everyone else got it but us,” Malloy said, but added he wishes McQuillan had played a more active role earlier in the process.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford and co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, was more blunt.

“He led the state’s effort, and we fell short,” he said.

McQuillan said he is disappointed the state did not win the money to accompany the education reforms passed for Race to the Top, but the competitive grant process launched the state into action.

“I have certainly taken my share of hits for Race to the Top and not getting the funding. But in the end I think we are stronger because of those reforms,” he said.

Among the criticisms of McQuillan is that he has not built a strong enough relationship with lawmakers.

Fleischmann said many of the initiatives of the State Department of Education are headed in the right direction and is supportive of many of McQuillan’s initiatives, but some things need to be shaken up. “There are too many people over there not rowing the same direction as the legislature,” he said.

Whoever becomes commissioner will face a financial crisis that threatens public schools across the state.

The state is facing a projected deficit as much as $3.67 billion, and Malloy said the issue of state aid to public schools came up earlier Tuesday in a meeting he had with several superintendents from urban school districts. Of particular concern is the expiration of federal stimulus funds, which accounted for $270 million in state school aid this year–roughly one-seventh of the state’s major grant to public schools.

Malloy, who previously pledged to fill that gap and keep school funding at current levels, said Tuesday he remains hopeful the state can avoid cuts in the Education Cost Sharing grant, the state’s main source of aid to towns and cities.

“On everyone’s mind is what’s going to happen with ECS,” Malloy said. “Making ECS cuts, particularly in urban centers would be devastating,” he said. “On the other hand, there is precious little [in funding decisions] that we can take off the table.”

A committee of the state board is considering ways to cope with the possible reduction of ECS funding. Malloy agrees with some critics who say the current formula does not adequately take into account student needs, particularly in some urban school districts.

Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, said fixing urban schools is a crucial goal.

“Dan Malloy understands urban education and urban issues deeply in a way others don’t,” said Stamford Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr, one of a half dozen urban superintendents who met with Malloy Tuesday.

“The governor-elect listened to us and also challenged us . . . on what our plans are to get all kids reading by the end of third grade,” Starr said. “What we asked for was a seat at the table. We want to be part of the reform conversation.”

McQuillan, too, has made improving urban schools a key goal.

“I think the work we’ve done for early childhood education has been path-breaking, but unfortunately the budget undercuts the forward momentum of offering more students early education,” he said.

State officials estimate it would cost an additional $100 million to offer early childhood classes to all eligible applicants in 19 school systems identified as the state’s neediest districts. Malloy said Tuesday that any expansion of preschool programs would be subject to budgetary limits and would have to take place gradually.

According to the Early Childhood Alliance, an advocacy coalition, nearly 80 percent of the children in the state attend preschool, but the figure is much lower in urban areas.

McQuillan said he believes he and Malloy share common goals.

“There’s a very clear appreciation for high quality preschool education and instruction, the need to look at how we intervene in our districts through turnaround work, and our accountability plans for underperforming schools,” he said.

McQuillan became commissioner in 2007 after working as a deputy education commissioner in Massachusetts. He was a key figure in developing plans for improving schools in Massachusetts under the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

After beginning his career as a junior high school English teacher in Newton, Mass., in 1971, McQuillan held administrative jobs in several Massachusetts school districts, working as an assistant school superintendent in Beverly and as superintendent in both Andover and Lincoln.

Both Massachusetts and Connecticut have large performance gaps that find low-income and minority students lagging behind middle- class and white children, but Massachusetts has had a better record on recent national tests of reading and mathematics.