The nation’s largest academic achievement gap among poor children is high on the list of challenges confronting Connecticut’s next governor, but another education gap poses a more immediate dilemma.

It is the $270 million shortfall that will be left in the state’s education budget when federal stimulus money runs out next year.

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Dan Malloy

Both major party candidates, Republican Tom Foley and Democrat Dan Malloy, say they intend to plug that gap – amounting to about 14 percent of state school aid – and to preserve the current level of state support for public schools.

“I have committed to not reduce education funding,” Foley said. “We need to reduce the level of spending in our state but not at the expense of our children and our educational system.”

“No way around it,” Malloy said. “If we were to impose a 14½ percent cut, communities like Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury, New Britain, New London would be absolutely devastated.”

A third candidate, Chester First Selectman Tom Marsh, running as an independent, said he would make education “a very high priority” but that it would be impractical to fund education at its current level, given the enormity of a projected state budget deficit.

The Education Cost Sharing grant is the single largest source of state aid to local school districts, and the pledges by Malloy and Foley not to reduce it “are welcome news to towns and cities that are very nervous about that funding,” said James Finley, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

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Tom Foley

But finding the money for schools will be a daunting challenge, especially as the next governor confronts an overall budget deficit projected to reach nearly $3.4 billion next year. The $270 million in education funds currently covered by the stimulus would be more than enough to pay annual state costs for a dozen state regulatory agencies, including the departments of public safety, labor and consumer protection, for example.

Across the state, school districts have already been hit hard by the economic slump, laying off teachers, cutting popular programs and even closing some schools. Educators fear next year could be worse.

“While both candidates said they will do their best to find ways . . . to keep [state school aid] as it is, we remain concerned about it,” said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “It’s a big gap.”

Malloy has said he will use a combination of cuts in state services, labor concessions and tax hikes to attack the deficit. The task could be even more difficult for Foley, who has pledged not to raise taxes, saying the deficit can be closed through spending cuts, labor concessions and revenue from job growth.

The question of how to pay for public schools will shape the approach to other issues on the education agenda. How will the state pay for the high school reforms approved by the legislature last spring? Can it afford Malloy’s plans for preschool? How will it pay for Foley’s plans to expand charter schools and other choices for parents?

The State Board of Education is reviewing a complex set of formulas governing school aid, and the next governor will play a key role in the debate over financing public education.

Foley, a Greenwich businessman, says the current Education Cost Sharing grant “looks like about 15 inches of computer code.” He has endorsed a controversial approach that would link school funding directly to each student, sending state aid and local tax support to whatever school the student attends – a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example.

The money-follows-the-student plan has been championed by charter school supporters, including the New Haven-based school reform group ConnCAN. However, the idea has drawn criticism from teacher unions, school boards and others, mainly because it would bolster aid for some schools while taking away money from others.

Critics fear it would drain money, including local tax funds, from regular public schools at a time when schools are facing worsening budget strains.

Foley, however, described the system as “a marketplace where parents are choosing, selecting schools that they think are doing the best job for their children.” He said part of the problem with the existing system “is that the money gets directed to the very schools that are failing.”

Foley’s education plan is centered on a philosophy of making public education more accountable to market forces. It would reallocate state funds to successful schools and give parents more choices such as charter schools, magnet schools or even schools in other districts.

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Tom Marsh

“We don’t want to be funding failure. We want to be funding success.”

Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, has called for long-term reform of school funding. As mayor, he was part of a coalition of municipal and education officials that sued the state in 2005 over what it says is a broken and unfair system of paying for public education.

That lawsuit by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding is pending in court.

“We need to build more robust funding for education and need to end our over-reliance on property taxes,” said Malloy. His plan also calls for curbing school district administrative expenses and shifting funding toward preschool and elementary grades, “where the greatest educational gains can be made.”

In the current economic climate, however, one of the key pieces of Malloy’s education platform – the expansion of preschool education – will take some time to achieve, Malloy said.

“I wish I could do that on Day One, and I can’t,” he said, “but it’s a goal we will work at.”

Connecticut spends about $74 million annually to subsidize preschool programs in the state’s neediest school districts, but the State Department of Education estimates there is a need for about 13,000 additional slots for 3- and 4-year-olds in those districts – an expansion that would cost more than $100 million.

Marsh, the third-party candidate, said he would try to make up part of the loss of stimulus funds by working work with statewide union leaders to negotiate wage freezes for school employees “rather than having 169 towns going through their own negotiations.”

He also said any debate over building support for state school aid should include discussions with labor leaders “on increasing accountability and cost control.”

For the next governor, the cost of education is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. The biggest immediate challenge will be to jump start the economy, the candidates say.

“As soon as I resolve the structural imbalance in our budget and begin work on an economic development plan that can reasonably predict producing jobs, then [education] will once again be my highest priority,” Malloy said.

Foley said, “Too many people in our state are out of work or under financial stress. . . . That’s a more acute problem. That’s a problem people feel every day. Failing schools is more of a chronic problem. . . .

“But long-term for the state,” he said, “the economic future and economic vitality of Connecticut depend on the performance in our education system.”

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