WASHINGTON-Connecticut is out of the running for a coveted federal education grant that state officials had said was vital to implementing the sweeping new school reforms passed in May.

Connecticut did not make the list of finalists for the Race to the Top grants, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced today. Eighteen other states–including New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts–and the District of Columbia were chosen to advance to the next round, with 10 to 15 grant winners expected to be identified in September.

The exclusion of Connecticut from the list was “a profoundly disappointing decision,” Gov. M. Jodi Rell said.

“We submitted a very strong application that offered a clear blueprint for achieving our goals. Our application was overwhelmingly backed by an extraordinary collaboration of government, education, businesses and local officials.

“This decision is an affront to all the dedicated individuals who worked long and hard to make our case. However, it cannot and will not lessen our commitment in providing the best education we can for our children.”

Members of the state’s Congressional delegation also said they were crestfallen by the news.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, said Duncan’s announcement raised questions about the validity of the Race to the Top program and the Obama Administration’s increasing emphasis on competitive grants.

“Today’s disappointing decision by Sec. Duncan only heightens the serious questions I have been raising about the Administration’s one-size-fits-all approach to education funding,” Courtney said in a statement.”In light of today’s decision, I am more concerned than ever about the direction he wants to take America’s schools. I will continue to work with Commissioner McQuillan and other education leaders to examine the Department of Education’s decision, and we will redouble our efforts to secure Connecticut’s fair share of funding.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, went further, blasting the Race to the Top program as misguided, saying it is the “wrong approach at the wrong time” and is an extra burden on schools at a time when many are already struggling.

“After jumping through bureaucratic hoops and even passing a new state law, Connecticut has not been selected as a finalist for this controversial program, which will pit states against other states, encouraging an ultimately destructive competition that will drain funding and resources from under-performing states and leave our neediest students, those who are from low-income families or minorities, further behind,” DeLauro said in a statement. “Schools that encounter difficulties will be punished instead of aided, and will be forced to implement reforms without resources.”

Earlier this year, Rell signed a landmark education reform package into law that was aimed at bolstering Connecticut’s efforts to win $175 million in federal funding under President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative.

 To make the state more competitive, the legislature created a new teacher evaluation system, increased high school graduation requirements, and strengthened charter schools, among other steps. That law, state officials said, would give the state a stronger hand as it applied for a share of $4.3 billion pot of federal Race to the Top funds.

Education advocates and state leaders hailed the new law but said federal funding would be necessary to help put these new measures into place.

At the State Department of Education, officials had been making plans to go to Washington to make their case as a finalist, but today’s announcement ended those plans.

“I’m very, very disappointed,” Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said. The state’s application, he said, was considerably stronger than an initial application last January that was submitted before lawmakers passed reforms that he called “pathbreaking legislation.” That application also was unsuccessful in an earlier round of competition for the Race to the Top grants.

“There were a lot of big changes that had take place between January and June,” McQuillan said. “I’m very puzzled in terms of what were the factors that didn’t bring us closer to those who made the finalists.’

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, and state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairmen of the legislature’s Education Committee, also expressed disappointment but said the news was offset by the announcement earlier this week that Connecticut has qualified to receive an additional $146 million in federal stimulus funds for education.

However, the stimulus grant — which was contingent upon the state providing evidence of progress on the collection of student data — does not represent an increase in federal funding but is the second installment of what had already been anticipated, according to McQuillan.

Nevertheless, Fleischmann said, “These dollars help take some of the sting out of today’s news” on Race to the Top.

Gaffey said the reforms passed by the legislature last spring “were about good public policy and not necessarily about the federal money,” Gaffey said.

“While today’s decision is disappointing . . . we can’t lose sight of the overall goal in Connecticut. We had to enact major long-term reforms to address the issue of the achievement gap and dropout rates.”

One lawmaker who said he was not surprised by today’s announcement was Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who blamed Democrats for what he called a weakened education reform bill.

“Democrats stopped real reform by bending to special interests,” he said. McKinney said, for example, the reforms should have included a stronger link between teacher evaluations and student achievement.

He also blamed McQuillan for the failure to put Connecticut among the finalists. “The commissioner’s endorsement of the Democrats’ watered down education bill, his over-confidence in our application, and his failure to fight for additional measures that would have helped to ensure our success has made him an obstructionist to necessary education reform as well,” McKinney said. 

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