High school reforms likely to be delayed by budget concerns

A sweeping package of high school reforms approved in 2010 seems likely to be delayed for at least two years after the legislative committee responsible for deciding how they will be funded voted overwhelmingly to postpone the issue.

“We don’t have the money to implement these,” said Sen. Toni N. Harp, the Appropriations Committee co-chairwoman from New Haven. “We hope we are able to find the money later.”

The reforms were adopted as part of the state’s unsuccessful efforts to win federal Race to the Top education stimulus money. They include increasing the number of courses students must take to graduate and requiring end-of-course exams be completed by students.

Ritter, Betsy B.

Rep. Betsy Ritter at Approprations Committee hearing: ‘It’s concerning that dollars are standing in the way of reforms’

The legislature’s non-partisan budget office estimates it would cost up to $29 million to hire the additional teachers needed for the increases number of courses and to develop the end-of-course exams. Without Race to the Top funding, most of that cost would be left to the towns unless the state agrees to pay the bill–an unlikely prospect in a tough budget year.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been noncommittal on the question of delaying the reforms, saying he intends to make education reforms a top priority next year. He said tackling the state’s finances and government reorganization is enough of a task for this legislative session.

The move to delay the reforms appears to have strong support in the legislature: Of the 73 members of the two committees that have voted on the bill, Education and Appropriations, all but eight have supported it.

Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, was one of those members opposed to delay.

“This was the greatest thing we did last year,” she said. “It’s concerning that dollars are standing in the way of reforms that are good education policy… We should be keep pushing the envelope and figure out how to do this and that doesn’t necessarily mean spending that much.”

Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford and co-chair of the Education Committee, also opposed postponing the reforms.

“It is good public policy, and the committee should fight for it,” Stillman said before voting against the delay in March. She also said she worries delaying implementation would put the state at risk for not being eligible for future federal dollars for reforms.

But the other co-chair of the Education Committee disagrees.

“If there were sufficient state resources then I would be 100 percent behind it,” Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said Tuesday. “There are a lot of science, math and world language teachers that would need to be hired and neither [local] districts or the state can afford that right now… There would be a lot of tradeoffs at schools to do these initiatives.”

Members of the State Board of Education voted in April to oppose delaying reform.

“Everybody feels that we really cannot afford as a state to put our students in a position where a high school diploma from Connecticut means less than the high school diploma most other students will have,” said state board chairman Allan Taylor.

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.