Do education grants work? State rarely checks

Business leaders offered a simple, if politically sensitive suggestion Thursday on how to pay for many of the things needed to improve education in the state: link the laundry list of grants that the state dishes out each year to performance.

“It is time to gather the will to fundamentally assess whether we are spending our dollars in the right areas to drive educational attainment,” Ramani Ayer, the retired leader of The Hartford insurance company, said when releasing the Connecticut Council for Education Reform’s recommendations.


Steven Simmons at the microphone

By the council’s estimates, the state is giving towns $600 million — or nearly 20 percent of what the state spends on education — “without proper assessment of whether these grants are working.”

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said he agrees that more oversight is necessary.

“It’s achievable,” he said. “What we are looking for is to ensure there’s coherence, accountability and effectiveness in the delivery of resources to schools and students.”

New money to encourage districts to embrace whatever the reform of the moment is — be it afterschool programs, full-day kindergarten or enriched curriculum — has become routine.

But Ayer and Steven Simmons, a cable television executive who is the vice chairman of the council, said the state has failed to assess those results.

“We need to look at reallocations,” Simmons said.

As proof that the education systems in many states are doing a better job while spending less, Ayer pointed to a recent national report card highlighting that Connecticut spends more for each student than almost every other state after factoring in the region’s higher cost of living. Education Week reported that $13,959 is spent educating each student in the state compared with the $11,665 national average.

Spending smarter

It’s not that the business leaders think that all of this $600 million is being spent on failing programs, but no assessments are done to identify what is most effective. Is an afterschool program being financed by a state grant more than a babysitting program? Is the grant-funded program that is paying to help young parents finish school working? They don’t know.

“There are a lot of businesses that go through this zero-base evaluation. I don’t see why we shouldn’t do that in the education system in Connecticut,” Ayer said.

Kevin Chambers of the State Department of Education’s budget office, said several grants are awarded based on formulas. For example, any special education expenditures above certain levels are automatically reimbursed.

Districts are required to be audited each year to ensure they spent the money on the intended purpose. But no analysis is made of whether they could have done it more cheaply or if the money is actually helping to improve education. A 2002 report by legislative researchers on the accountability of education grants shows districts are required to report to the State Department of Education the projects they spent the money on, but there is no holistic review.

The Appropriation Committee’s Results Based Accountability subcommittee, which measures a program or grant’s effectiveness, has not reviewed these education grants.

The business group’s proposed solution is to roll this piecemeal funding for education into one grant with required and measurable outcomes and benchmarks. The Education Week report card gives Connecticut is 60 percent, or a D-minus, one of the worst grades for holding schools accountable.

Sen. Andrea Stillman of Waterford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said she is considering backing an initiative to have more accountability over the money the state is dishing out, but she worries about the cost of beginning such an undertaking.

“We should be able to see what is being spent and have a system to make sure the monies are spent appropriately,” she said.

She also said that such a system may identify areas where some districts are spending much more to provide the exact same program.

“It is likely there are inequities in what districts are spending,” she said.

Once this existing spending is freed up, the business group acknowledges more money overall may still be needed for their initiatives to become a reality.

The reforms they would like to see include:

  • Attract quality teachers to high-need schools by paying them more;
  • Require students to pass a high school assessment in order to graduate;
  • Increase the number of nontraditional public schools, such as charter and magnet schools;
  • Provide universal preschool to every 3- and 4-year old from a low-income family;
  • Stop laying off teachers based on seniority, instead use a meaningful evaluation.