Legislature hoping third try will be the charm in RttT competition

With the announcement of a new pot of federal Race to the Top education grants, state legislators are hoping a series of initiatives including tracking student outcomes, consolidating early education programs and providing funding for teachers to earn degrees will bring success after two failures.

The state Senate passed the bills last week; the House of Representatives passed one Saturday and will take up the others in the next few days. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is expected to sign the package into law.

“This really will position us very well,” Sen. Andrea Stillman, the co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, said before the senate vote. They will “address so much of the needs we have here in Connecticut.”


Sen. Andrea Stillman: ‘This really will position us very well’

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced last week a third round of Race to the Top money. This time state’s will compete for $500 million to better coordinate, increase access and provide quality education for early childhood programs.

Lawmakers pounced at the offer and began passing several reforms they hope will improve the programs serving about 70,400 children each year.

First on the list is creating a system to measure education development and other outcomes of students in the state-subsidized early childhood programs by July 2013.

“We don’t have child outcome data yet and that’s not responsible public policy,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who led the way for early education reforms this legislative session. She estimates the state has spent more than $1 billion on early education over the last decade.

“I don’t believe we’ve made the most of our dollars,” she said.

The state’s bid for this new round of federal money also includes moving early education programs into one agency. Currently numerous different agencies manage the various early education programs, which education advocates say leaves many parents and programs left not knowing where to turn.

The bill passed by the Senate requires a strategic plan be created within the next two years to merge these programs into one state agency. It has not been determined if that will result in a new state agency being created or if the Department of Education will begin overseeing all of these programs.

Another bill provides $500,000 every year for teachers in early education programs to earn bachelor’s degrees–a requirement for all early childhood educators by 2020. The change would make Connecticut’s requirements more stringent that those of most other states, according  the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

Some education advocates had worried that because only 59 percent of early childhood teachers currently have degrees the state would retreat from the requirement. But instead legislators decided to ante up the funding.

“We want to make sure we have the best teachers possible,” Bye said.

Another bill passed in the Senate and awaiting action in the House would begin testing children in kindergarten on their reading and education development. It also would require principals to report to the State Department of Education when a child is passed on to the next grade when they are determined to be severely behind. It also requires those students be offered a seat in a summer reading program.

Malloy has expressed support for several of the measures, and for the state’s efforts to win federal funding.

“We will meet any reasonable standard to compete for those dollars,” Malloy said. During last year’s campaign, he was critical of the state’s failed bids for almost $193 million and $175 million in the first two rounds of Race ti the Top grants.

The legislature is leaning toward postponing some of the reforms it approved in hopes of winning the federal money, but Malloy said he doesn’t believe that will impede efforts this time.