Schools losing ground as federal funds dwindle

As local budget problems mounted in recent years, New Britain’s public schools relied heavily on federal funds not only to salvage teaching jobs but to develop an array of acclaimed career and technical programs.

But like many other towns and cities, New Britain now is bracing for sharp reductions in federal support.

Across the state, public schools, already battered by the slumping economy, are facing big losses in federal funds, mainly from the expiration of federal stimulus funding–a $794 million lifeline over the past two years that helped preserve teaching jobs and plugged a gap in the state’s education budget.

Although the state has pledged to make up much of that loss in regular education aid, schools still stand to lose about $250 million in stimulus funds that had been used largely to bolster special education programs and assist schools in high-poverty areas.

On top of that loss, dozens of smaller federal education grants are in jeopardy, too.

After holding steady for years, “we have a number of grants going away and a number of grants going down,” said Brian Mahoney, chief financial officer at the State Department of Education. “Now we are starting to see a lot more red ink.”

Mahoney is scheduled to deliver a report in October to the State Board of Education outlining reductions or elimination of grants supporting career training, technology education, health care, adult education and a host of other programs.

The reductions include a nearly 7 percent cut, about $7.5 million, to Title I, a major grant that provides reading and mathematics assistance such as literacy coaches and tutors to school districts with large populations of low-income families. Although Congress kept Title I at existing levels this year, Connecticut’s share declined because its rate of growth in child poverty–a key factor in determining the size of the grant–was generally lower than that of the nation as a whole.

In addition, the state projects a 13 percent cut of about $3.3 million to another large grant, Title IIA, supporting programs for training and recruiting high-quality teachers and principals.

Some grants have been eliminated entirely, such as Connecticut’s $472,583 annual appropriation for Even Start, a program featuring early childhood education, parenting classes and other services for poor families. Officials are looking for other sources of funding, including a proposed allocation from the state legislature, but that remains uncertain.

The cutbacks not only grow out of an overall effort by Congress to limit spending, they reflect a fundamental debate over the federal role in education.

Future projections on education grants remain uncertain, but the outlook for schools is not promising, particularly in light of the recent Congressional decision to cut spending sharply over the next decade as part of a deal to avert a debt ceiling crisis.

So far, the biggest hit in Connecticut comes from the expiration of federal stimulus funding, much of which was used to limit layoffs and prop up the state’s education budget as the economy slumped. Although Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state legislature softened the blow by pledging to keep this year’s state education aid at current levels, local districts still anticipate some layoffs as federal funds expire.

“We’re going to end up with gradual increases in class sizes and cutbacks in extracurricular stuff and some curricular stuff, like world languages,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

In New Britain, for example, stimulus funds allowed the district to save dozens of jobs last year, but “that [money] has dried up…so we’re back to square one,” said Acting Superintendent Ronald Jakubowski. This year, the district eliminated 36 teaching jobs and saw class sizes creep upward to the high 20s and low 30s, he said.

“I’m pessimistic about next year,” he said. “Who knows where the money’s going to come from? It’s not coming from local funds because we don’t have it.”

Some stimulus funds remain in use, including grants to turn around a handful of low-performing schools in the state’s poorest cities, but most of the stimulus money has been used up. As a result, federal funds are expected to account for roughly 5 percent of overall spending on public education in Connecticut this year, down from more than 9 percent two years ago at the height of the stimulus program.

Among other federal grants undergoing cuts are those supporting career and technical education under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act.

At New Britain High School, officials have used Perkins funds to start or expand an ambitious series of career and technical education programs. It has been used to buy equipment and train teachers in courses in health care, business and finance, technology, and consumer science.

The grant also helps support popular after-school activities, including projects in which students have won prizes in robotics competitions, built a solar-powered car, and modified an automobile engine to run on biofuels.

In some cases, the grant pays a portion of teacher salaries, such as that of Darlene Clark, who teaches in the school’s health careers academy, where enrollment has jumped from 52 students last year to 206 this fall.

“If that’s going to continue to grow, we need staff…This is where Perkins helps,” said Thomas Menditto, coordinator of science for New Britain’s public schools. In a district that already has had to lay off dozens of teachers, “local funding cannot keep up with the level of support for personnel,” he said.

Schools may have to limit enrollment in some courses or drop other classes entirely as the district absorbs a 22 percent decline in Perkins funds this year, according to Menditto. In many cases, the purchase of new equipment remains on hold, he said, citing the loss of a separate federal technology grant.

To illustrate the problem, he stopped recently in one New Britain High School classroom where teacher Christine Laudano said 32 students share 26 aging computers, all of which are too out of date to handle applications such as Google e-mail. “The computers don’t have enough memory,” Laudano said. “And my printer is not working.”

Overall, Connecticut will take nearly a 12 percent cut, or about $1.1 million, in Perkins funds this year and stands to lose up to 18 percent more next year, said June Sanford, a State Department of Education official who oversees the Perkins program.

Federal officials, including President Obama, have talked about “the need to have a skilled, prepared workforce…yet they’re taking our money,” she said. “It’s devastating.”

Some school districts will have to close down or cut back programs, many of which are designed to allow students “to test their interest in a variety of occupational areas for postsecondary education and future careers,” Sanford said.

In Brookfield, for example, officials may have to limit enrollment in a medical internship program, reduce the number of field trips and cut back on materials, said Susan Troupe, school to career coordinator at Brookfield High School.

“We’re losing about 30 percent of our (Perkins) funding, which is pretty shocking,” she said.

Earlier this year, more than two dozen U.S. senators, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, urged a Senate subcommittee to restore funding that was scheduled to be cut from the Perkins grant and other workforce programs in an appropriations bill.

“These critical programs help ensure that jobseekers and employers can access the skills they need to rebuild our nation’s economy and provide for our future competitiveness,” the senators said in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

“In light of our tenuous recovery, additional cuts to these important programs would undermine workforce preparedness and long-term economic growth,” the senators said.

The proposed cuts also drew criticism from U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees labor, health and education. She described the proposals as an attempt by the House Republican majority “to limit the federal impact on education efforts wholesale.”

DeLauro also criticized cutbacks in the federal budget deal earlier this year, saying the budget
“recklessly slashed funding for worthy and successful education programs…and unbelievably, it even eliminated all federal literacy programs.”

What role should the federal government play in public education?

The question is certain to surface again as Congress debates President Obama’s new jobs bill. The American Jobs Act includes provisions calling for modernizing public schools across the nation and hiring thousands of teachers.

report released this week by the Education Commission of the States estimates Connecticut could receive about $340 million for teaching jobs under the proposal, enough to save or create about 3,300 regular teaching jobs and nearly 400 jobs in early childhood programs. The bill, however, already has attracted critics, and the study warns, “There is no guarantee this proposal will become law.”