Tighter graduation requirements may be casualties of the budget

State lawmakers will soon have to deal with the hangover of passing a sweeping and expensive education reform law and then failing to capture the federal Race to the Top grant to pay for it.

Up first for reconsideration: increased graduation requirements.

“It is painful for me to say, but if we don’t find the money we may have no choice but to roll back those implementation dates,” Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said Monday.

The increased graduation standards include requiring additional credits in mathematics, science and foreign language, requiring students pass end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry, biology, American history and English or complete a senior project.


Education co-chairs Rep. Andrew Fleischmann and Sen. Andrea Stillman: Delay stricter graduation rules?

These requirements do not begin until the class of 2018 (freshman in 2014), but Fleischmann and the legislature’s budget analysts report there are millions that need to be spent in the coming months to prepare.

Fleischmann estimates that price tag to be $25 million over the next two years. Without state assistance, most of the costs will be borne by local school boards.

“Local education officials should not be stuck with this bill,” he said during an interview following the Education Committee’s first meeting of the legislative session.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the increased graduation requirements and graduation tests will cost the state $5.4 million in the coming two-year budget period. Towns will be hit with an estimated cost between $13.7 and $20.9 million in the second year of the biennium to hire up to 380 new teachers for the additional courses students must take.

“To add new requirements in this [fiscal] climate is just not fair. Towns can’t afford this. They are finding it difficult to just provide what they have now,” said Jim Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “If the state doesn’t come up with all the money for this then they should postpone it.”

Fleischmann said it is his “number one preference to move full speed ahead” in getting the requirements implemented, but he said he also understands that finding $25 million in new funding for education from the state will be difficult. State lawmakers are already facing a $271 million funding gap in the amount it gives towns for education due to federal education stimulus dollars running dry.

When lawmakers passed the increased graduation requirements last year, they were relying on capturing $175 million in federal Race to the Top money. But the state’s application was rejected by the U.S. Department of Education.

Connecticut is not the only state that passed sweeping education laws, and then failed to capture the federal money to pay for them. Forty states applied and just 11 states and the District of Columbia were awarded grants.

“Look, I will fight tooth and nail to keep these requirements, but if those dollars can’t be found then it’s only responsible to push back implementation,” Fleischmann said.

How long should it be pushed back? Fleischmann says until the state and towns can afford the increased costs.

But not everyone agrees, including Allan B. Taylor, the chairman for the State Board of Education.

“This will cost more to the children then it ever will cost the state in the short term,” he said. “Can you really put a price on the additional years our children are not ready for work or college? I don’t think so.”