Malloy: More money needed for education

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy may have given an energizing pep talk on education reform to a roomful of education advocates and leaders Thursday, but it was the comments he made to reporters afterward that will likely receive the largest cheers from those who have long said the state is shortchanging education.

“To make some of the progress we need to make in early childhood and teacher improvement, some additional monies are going to have to be expended. So, I believe that districts, and/or the state, are going to have to spend more money,” he said.

These comments come as the task force he has asked to re-configure how schools are financed nears the finish line in making some first-round recommendations. That task force is scheduled to meet Friday afternoon and does have a long list of recommendations they are considering.

Malloy and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor have routinely said more money needs to be directed to the lowest-performing districts, which they have said is about 25 districts.

On Thursday, in backing up the governor’s statements, Pryor said the state will begin “focusing resources where they’re needed and ensuring the right set of actions occur with the receipt of new funds.”

Just how much additional funding Malloy and Pryor are thinking is unclear, but Pryor did get the approval from the State Board of Education for $25 million for new initiatives late last year. He has also indicated that he supports competitive grants — or a statewide version of Race to the Top — for these needy districts that make necessary reforms.

Martha J. Kanter, the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said competitive grants have proven to be a great success.

“Money, it’s a great lever of change,” Kanter told the educators and policy makers at Malloy’s Education Workshop that took place Thursday afternoon at Central Connecticut State University.

But what happens to state funding for the districts that are the highest-achievement or middle of the pack? To say officials from those districts are nervous about their budgets, as Malloy and Pryor continue to tout the need to send more resources to poor districts, would be an understatement.

“Of course we are concerned they’re going to yank our funding,” said Lydia Tedone, the chairwoman of Simsbury’s Board of Education and president of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “We don’t want them to rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Malloy’s comments thus far haven’t suppressed those concerns of the better-off districts that their funding may be on the chopping block to pay for these low-achieving districts. But if he does intend to cut their funding, he has a huge political hill to climb.

Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, told the crowd those towns with the most money will balk at a reshuffeling of funding the most.

“It’s much easier to fight,” the national teachers’ union leader told the crowd.

And a fight is exactly what Tedone, whose district is one of the wealthier in the state, is gearing up for.

“We have a good relationship with our legislators. We expect them to fight the fight for us at the Capitol to protect our funding… We hope the governor will consider all 161 districts when he is looking at funding, not just the lowest performing.”

Cam Staples, a former state legislator and longtime chairman of the Education Committee, said reallocating the existing pot of money could make the most sense, but it’s not something Malloy would get easy buy in from those set to lose money.

“Removing funding from districts would be extremely difficult,” he said.

In Rhode Island, one of the panelists told the group they had to gradually phase in the “losers” over 10 years.

Dudley Williams, a member of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a business-backed reform group, and member of the school financiing task force, responded that he doesn’t think that will work in Connecticut.

“I don’t think you can have a funding formula where there are going to be losers,” he said.

James Finley, the leader of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, offered a solution to avoid creating losers.

“We need more money,” he said, estimating a price tag of nearly $800 million a year for state public school to get to where they need to be.

Pryor said according to a recent survey his office conducted, almost two-thirds of the superintendents in the state think the way the state finances schools is unfair.