Education panel considers competitive funding grants

The best way to turn around the state’s low-performing public schools may be to use money to reward reform, according to top state officials, including the new education commissioner.

The officials point at President Obama’s playbook — and his Race to the Top grants — as their model.

“One of the things that the federal government has done is that it has leveraged the kinds of changes that it viewed as the objective… It is incumbent upon us to use the funding lever in that way” in Connecticut, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told members of the panel looking at reorganizing how schools are financed. “If we do use the power of the purse string… I think we can make more progress.”

The state currently spends more than $2.8 billion each year on education, which is almost 15 percent of the state’s budget. None of this is awarded based on which reforms districts implement, or the results they achieve. Instead, money goes to districts based on a predetermined formula, and high-need districts receive grants to pay for additional programs.

“There should be some say in how those dollars are spent,” Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, and co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said of the low-performing districts.

School financing is a volatile issue in the state, with many local school and town officials saying the current system for divvying up funding is unfair and underfunded.

“It’s broken, and we all know it… We need to fix this formula once and for all, and we will,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told legislators earlier this year when creating this panel co-chaired by his budget director Ben Barnes.

And earlier this month that panel began to talk of beginning to link state funding to reforms and accepted best education practices.

“I am giving serious consideration to it personally, and I hope all of you will as well,” Barnes said. “Sometimes you have to hit that reset button.”

Pryor said state funding should be multi-faceted, presenting his own suggested “Three Cs” formula: committed funding based on a formula; competitive funding aligning with desired reforms; and conditional funding depending on specific needs.

“Maybe what we do in constructing a formula is a bit of each of those three,” he said, rather than a single C that exists now, and that’s just based on committed funding.

Mary Loftus Levine, the head of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said she opposes competitive grants if it’s taking away from the current pool of funding.

“If you are talking competitive grants … then certainly we would not support that kind of a model,” she said, since many districts already know what needs to be done but don’t have the ability to implement the changes because of insufficient resources.

But members of the panel, including Barnes, have signaled that additional dollars are going to be hard to come by.