One year later, lawmakers’ enthusiasm for education reform fades

Legislators last May circled around Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at the state Capitol and celebrated as he signed into law what many called a “landmark” education reform package.

What a difference a year makes.

This May the Democratic governor and his education commissioner say those reforms they guided through the legislature are at risk because of the funding cuts approved by the legislature’s Democratic-led budget-writing committee.

“This would seem to be a significant problem… These [initiatives] will be very difficult absent significant investment,” Stefan Pryor, the governor’s education commissioner, told members of the State Board of Education this month.

But Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate are noncommittal about whether the $49.1 million the administration is seeking will make it into their final budget. The money would be used to open new charter schools, implement new teacher evaluations linked to tenure and dismissal decisions and to pay for the state’s intervention in low-performing schools. 

The committee budget provided $14.7 million for these initiatives.

“There are lots of things we would like to do in the coming two years, but we have a tough budget… Obviously, not everything is going to get funding,” said Senate Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

Williams said the priority is to divvy up the painful cuts as lawmakers work to close a $1.5 billion deficit in each of the two coming fiscal years, and unfortunately that means that these reforms cannot be spared.

“We are doing our best to balance the budget in a fair way,” he said this week.

‘A slap in the face’

It’s not that the co-chairwomen of the powerful Appropriations Committee disagree with the reforms Malloy is asking them to fund.

Their problem seems to be in how he wants to pay for them.

The education budget the governor is asking legislators to approve provides zero funding for a long list of education programs that are priorities to the Senate chairwoman of the budget-writing committee.

“I really don’t even begin to know how to express my dissatisfaction with the elimination of all of the youth-serving programs that are in your budget,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Toni Harp, D-New Haven, told the governor’s education commissioner after Malloy’s budget was released.

“It really makes some of the other stuff that you are doing –- that is probably really good stuff –- seem less appetizing to me, frankly,” she added.

“To absolutely eliminate it, it very much feels like a slap in the face… I am very upset,” Harp said of the $4.5 million proposed cut that would eliminate state funding for afterschool programs.

The co-chairs also take issue with the lackof  transparency in the governor’s budget. For example, in the Education Department’s budget, a dozen programs that in the current year are set to receive $42.5 million were swept into a new single line item called “school improvement.” This new line item would give the commissioner “flexibility” in how the funding is spent.

That same “school improvement” account is where the governor proposes paying for the new evaluations, the new national Common Core standards and interventions in the lowest-performing schools.

“It does not lead to transparency for us… It means as legislators we get denied the opportunity to do what we do best, which is to legislate and create policy,” New Haven Rep. Toni Walker, the House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, told the education commissioner.

Her committee’s approved budget puts back or expands state funding for several of the youth-serving programs they took issue with being eliminated by the governor.

‘We need a little more money’

Will a budget that includes additional funding for the new teacher evaluations, Common Core, charter schools and intervention in low-performing schools be a make-or-break point for Malloy?

“Yes,” he responded to the Mirror’s question Thursday. “Funding school reforms is a major point for us. Obviously it all has to be negotiated.”

And with less than four weeks before the legislative session ends — and with the intention for a budget to be finalized by then — Malloy is ramping up the pressure for legislators to include his education funding.

“What we have to do is make sure that the package is fully implemented this year. And what that means is more money [has got] to go into education spending,” he told a crowd of about 100 charter school advocates and clergy rallying at the state capitol for his reforms this month. 

“We can do a lot of things with a little money, and we need a little more money to be [put] back in this budget when it gets passed,” he said. “Let’s be very clear, getting education right in Connecticut is the civil rights issue of our time.”

Delay implementation?

Absent the state providing funding to implement Common Core education standards and the new teacher evaluations, local officials worry the cost is going to fall on them. (See here and here for stories about the costs.)

“The state has asked schools to operate and reform at the same time, yet the Appropriations Committee’s recommendations do not include funding levels that appropriately support these efforts,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, the leader of the state’s superintendents’ association.

He added that the committee’s budget has “led [the superintendents’ group] to reconsider its position on school reform efforts.”

Williams, the Senate pro tem, says delaying the implementation of the initiatives, while not ideal, has to remain a possibility if the state cannot afford to support them now.

Several bills have been proposed this session pushing back the education law celebrated last year.

Malloy said this week that delaying the reforms cannot be an option.

If delayed, this wouldn’t be the first time “landmark” education reforms were pushed back because of fiscal constraints. The increased graduation requirements Rell celebrated signing into law with legislators in 2010 were delayed when the state lost the Race to the Top competition, and the federal funding that would pay for the reform.

While not delaying the reforms celebrated last year, the legislature and governor have already cut funding for them in the current fiscal year. The law passed last spring provided nearly $100 million for the current fiscal year. A few months later legislators and the governor were forced to cut spending on those reforms by $8 million as they closed a mid-year deficit.

Asked if more cuts are heading for these reforms, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey said he doesn’t have an answer to that question. 

“It’s all part of a large mix. We are hoping we will be able to accommodate the expected intentions of the education reforms in the budget. There are a lot of things on the table,” he said.