Connecticut’s restrictions on charter schools could jeopardize its chances of winning millions in federal stimulus money, an outspoken school reform advocate told state officials Wednesday.

Unless the state removes barriers to the growth of charters, “we are not going to be competitive” in the federal school reform competition known as Race to the Top, Alex Johnston said after meeting with members of  a State Board of Education committee.

But Johnston, head of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), got a chilly reception from teacher unions and other members of the education establishment when he called for a radical change in the way Connecticut pays for charter schools.

The ConnCAN proposal has little chance of winning approval, but the state board is expected to consider a more modest boost to charter school funding next month as it tries to put itself in a more favorable position in Race to the Top.

Unlike several other states, Connecticut has yet to make the kind of legislative and policy changes that could strengthen its standing in the race, Johnston said.

RTTT chalkboard

The state last week submitted an ambitious 680-page application seeking $193 million over four years for an extensive reform agenda that includes efforts to reshape public high schools, improve data collection on student progress, and bolster the quality of the teaching force. If the state is not among winners of the first round of competition in April, officials hope for better results when a second round of winners is announced in September.

“I think we face an uphill struggle in the first round,” said Allan Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education. “The simple fact is, we’re not as well positioned as many other states.”

In Race to the Top, the Obama administration is dangling more than $4.3 billion in incentives to spur education reforms. Forty states, including Connecticut, have applied for the first round of grants. With state budgets suffering through the nation’s slumping economy, several states already have made aggressive efforts to compete for the money:

  • In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law last week expanding the number of charter schools, making it easier for schools to remove bad teachers, and giving superintendents the authority to shake up failing school districts.
  • In Illinois, lawmakers recently passed legislation making student performance a significant factor in the evaluation of teachers and principals and expanding alternative methods for certifying educators.
  • In Michigan, the legislature established procedures for state takeovers of failing schools, expanded the number of charter schools, and raised the required age of school attendance to 18.
  • In Colorado, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien led an extensive effort to prepare the state’s application, Gov. Bill Ritter created a council to design an evaluation system for teachers and principals, and the legislature passed a law to monitor the performance of recent graduates of teacher training programs.

In Connecticut, some critics have faulted Gov. M. Jodi Rell for not taking a more visible role in promoting the state’s efforts. Rell signed the state’s application, as required by federal rules, but did not attend a recent press conference outlining the Connecticut proposal and has kept a low public profile on the reform plans.

“Gov. Rell has just not been engaged at all in Race to the Top,” said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

Matt Fritz, special assistant to the governor, disputed that characterization, saying Rell’s staff met frequently with State Department of Education officials, and Rell herself met with Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan in October to discuss the state’s approach. As co-chair of a National Governors Association committee, Rell also submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Education suggesting improvements in the Race to the Top application process, Fritz said.

McQuillan, who is leading Connecticut’s effort, insists the state has a legitimate chance to win some of the federal money, citing the state’s record in areas such as mentoring programs for new teachers and magnet school choice programs for families.

Connecticut’s application offers a wide-ranging vision for the future of public education in the state, including dozens of ideas for improving existing programs and creating new ones. Among the most intriguing ideas are proposals to bolster the quality of the teaching force.

One proposal would allow schools to consider student academic growth in the evaluation of teachers and principals, an idea that has been resisted in the past by teachers’ unions. Other proposals include signing bonuses for hard-to-fill teaching jobs and an exchange program allowing city and suburban schools to share rotating teams of top-notch science and math teachers.

The focus at Wednesday’s meeting of the state board’s Legislation and Bylaws Committee was on charter schools, the experimental public schools that are free of most union and administrative rules. The ability to expand high-quality charters will be a key element in Connecticut’s chances in Race to the Top, according to Johnston. Connecticut has 18 charter schools, but current state laws impose enrollment limits and say that new charters can be added only where funding is available.

Charter schools are funded with a $9,300 per student line item in the state budget, but the ConnCAN proposal would put charters on equal financial footing with other public schools by including them in the regular state aid formula.

ConnCAN called for a simplified plan that would guarantee a standard level of funding for whatever school a student attends – a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example.

The plan – allowing the money to follow the student – has drawn support from some groups. “High-performing charters . . . are a tremendous step in the right direction,” Danielle Smith, director of the Connecticut Black Alliance for Educational Options, said in a written statement urging the state board to provide financial stability for charter schools.

But ConnCAN’s plan would bolster aid for some schools while sharply reducing support for others, a politically explosive combination, according to many educators and politicians.

The proposal “would really create a parallel [charter] school system in competition with the public school system,” said Roch Girard, president of the Connecticut Federation of School Administrators.

A projection by the State Department of Education predicts that a phase-in of the plan would cost the state $28 million the first year and eventually would result in reductions in state aid to school districts whose students attend charter schools. According to the state projections, West Hartford, for example, would lose more than $200,000 and New Haven nearly $25 million under the ConnCAN plan, the education department said.

“You can’t accomplish what Alex Johnston wants without tremendous political angst,” Gaffey said in an earlier interview. “I just don’t see it happening.”

Gaffey also expressed doubt that Connecticut would receive anything close to the $193 million requested under Race to the Top. The amount exceeds the estimated range of $60 million to $175 million available to a state of Connecticut’s size.

“It’s not going to be $100 million or $150 million or $175 million,” Gaffey said. The state’s best hope is for a grant in the second round of awards, but “I can tell you with virtual certainty we’ve got a long way to go.”

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