Legislators considering pushing back education reforms

The extensive education reforms passed last year in hopes of winning a federal Race to the Top grant may be delayed because the state didn’t win the grant and doesn’t have the money itself to implement them.

“If we find the money then we are happy to push forward with these reforms… but money is tight,” Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said Monday.

The reforms, including stricter high school graduation requirements and development of a new teacher evaluation system, would cost as much as $26 million over the next two years, most of which would be borne by local school districts if the state does not provide the funding. That’s unlikely, as the state faces a deficit estimated as high $3.67 billion.

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. The requirements are set to begin with the class of 2018.

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.

“Of course it is important for education results to improve – but a new … mandate is absurd when the state is already underfunding existing education programs,” testified Kachina Walsh-Weaver with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

This problem of who would be stuck with the bill was created after lawmakers passed the requirements last year, counting on capturing $175 million in federal Race to the Top money to pay for the reforms. 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.

Joeseph Cirasuolu, leader of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, testified many of the reforms “amounts to an unfunded state mandate” on local districts.

Ben Barnes, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget director, said the administration “is certainly sympathetic to unfunded mandates” and the Administration “would strongly consider delaying those reforms if the General Assembly decides that’s needed.”

“I think we should absolutely increase our share in education costs, but obviously we can’t get there now,” he said, referring to why Malloy’s budget decided not to pick up the additional costs of this law. “It’s extremely challenging just keeping the current [education] funding steady.”

Malloy’s proposed budget does provide the $2 million needed to pay for the data systems required in the law.

Fleischmann said obviously anything that is provided funding for in the state’s budget would not need to be delayed.

Regardless of the costs, not everyone is supportive of delaying the reforms, including Shana Kennedy-Salchow, co-executive director of the Connecticut Commission of Educational Achievement, a group of business leaders that advocates for education issues.

“Some of the deadlines [are already] too generous… Can we really afford to wait?” she said. “This law was a step in the right direction and we don’t need to move backwards.”

Judith B. Greiman, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, also testified that with so many students needing remedial education when they enter college, delaying these reforms is a mistake.

“It seems counter-intuitive for the state to further delay addressing these problems and continue the status quo in our public schools for another two years,” she said.