When Connecticut twice failed to qualify for millions of dollars in school aid under the federal Race to the Top program this year, some critics blamed Gov. M. Jodi Rell for not taking a more active role in pushing school reform.

The candidates running to replace Rell in the November election say it won’t happen again.

“What we should have done,” said Democrat Dan Malloy, “is had a governor who led the effort to win those monies. . . .It’s a classic example of a lack of leadership.”

Republican Tom Foley pledged to pursue an aggressive reform agenda. “We missed two opportunities this year to qualify for [Race to the Top]. If I’m governor, we’re not going to miss any opportunities,” he said.

The candidates, including third-party candidate Tom Marsh, have embraced approaches such as expanding charter schools and other choices for parents – an idea that was among goals outlined in Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion competition to spur school reform.

“Foley and Malloy and I are all on the same page in expanding the use of charter schools and parental choice,” said Marsh, the Chester first selectman running on the Independent Party ticket.

Despite passing a sweeping school reform law last spring, Connecticut lost its bid for $175 million in the Race to the Top competition while neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York all won grants.

A key goal of Race to the Top is to narrow the achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority students lagging far behind their white and more affluent classmates in reading and mathematics. Connecticut has some of the largest gaps in the nation.

“The achievement gap that exists in Connecticut is a tragedy. We should be ashamed of it,” Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, says in an education policy plan that would change the way the state finances public education, give parents a greater role in schools, and promote programs such as preschool education.

As mayor, Malloy 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 is still pending. Malloy also is one of the signatories supporting the Education Equality Project, an advocacy movement of some of the nation’s notable politicians, educators and civil rights leaders  promoting efforts to close the achievement gap.

A key feature of Malloy’s plan is the expansion of preschool education. He frequently cites his record in Stamford, where the city subsidized preschool classes to provide access to all families. “No child should be denied the chance to come to school ready to learn because of financial circumstances,” he said.

He also proposes expanding curriculum to include “hands-on science, history, civics, foreign languages and arts” and creating more opportunities for high school students to take part in apprenticeships, take community college classes, or gain real workplace experience

Malloy said he would encourage parents to become more involved in schools and would urge employers to grant them release time for school events.

Malloy recommends allowing the state’s two-year community colleges to offer four-year degrees. “We need more college graduates, and we have a significant proportion of the population that has not been able to afford a four-year degree in the current cost structure,” he said.

He said there is a “disconnect between economic development efforts and our approach to higher education. I think we need to change the relationship completely. . . .We need to encourage entrepreneurship in higher education.”

Foley’s plan, meanwhile, borrows heavily from the Race to the Top blueprint, proposing to make public education more accountable to market forces by giving parents more choices such as charter schools, magnet schools or even schools in other districts.

One of the most striking features of Foley’s plan is his proposal to make a fundamental change the way the state finances public education – a proposal that has attracted skeptics among some education groups.

The proposal 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 drawn criticism from teacher unions, school boards and others who contend it would drain money from regular public schools at a time when schools are facing worsening budget strains.

Foley, however, said the state’s existing funding system too often sends money “to the very schools that are failing.” He said he would reallocate the money to successful schools.

That position drew a sharp response from a state teachers’ union official. “That’s a complete disaster if you care about making those low-performing schools better,” said Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers – Connecticut.

Foley’s stand on other matters, too, is likely to put him at odds with teacher unions.

His recommendation to repeal the state’s binding arbitration law for teachers’ contract negotiations was a key factor in prompting the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, to endorse Malloy. “We don’t need teachers to be forced to take wage cuts or go on strike as they did in the ’70s,” said Mark Waxenberg, CEA’s director of government relations.

Foley also favors using teacher evaluations rather than seniority to make decisions about pay and promotion. That is a key piece of the Race to the Top strategy of reform, but it has stirred a heated debate within teacher unions across the nation, and many teachers remain wary of the idea.

“I understand that,” Foley said as he unveiled his education plan last week, “but I also believe that teachers fundamentally go into teaching because they’re concerned about the interests of our children. . . . If we have a policy that makes sense and have aspects of that policy that clearly will benefit children, I expect teachers and their representatives to support those policies.”

Although Malloy won the support of both of the state’s teacher unions for the November election, he did not have their endorsements in the primary election. AFT – Connecticut did not make an endorsement in the primary, and CEA backed Ned Lamont.

“I refuse to accept the false choice that you’re either pro-reform or pro-teacher,” Malloy writes in his education policy plan. “I’m both, and not only do I not think that’s contradictory. . . . I’m pro-reform as long as it doesn’t mean just bashing teachers, and I’m pro-teacher as long as that doesn’t just mean maintaining the status quo.”

Marsh, the third-party candidate, said would engage teacher unions in discussions on matters such as accountability and cost control as the state confronts a massive budget deficit.

Like Foley, he agrees with the idea of merit pay for teachers. “Better teachers have to be rewarded. Lesser teachers have to be retrained or removed,” he said.

Marsh disagrees with Malloy’s plan to expand preschool classes. “We’re diametrically opposed on that,” he said. “We’re doing a disservice to children by developing programs that remove them from parental influence. I’d prefer spending more money helping people become better parents if that’s what they need. . . .If we’re going to spend money, I’d prefer to see a competent education system that starts in kindergarten.”

Marsh’s strategy for improving schools includes giving parents options to select high-performing magnet or charter schools.

“School choice is happening. . . . There are schools that are closing the achievement gap,” he said. “It’s giving parents and students a choice within a public school structure.”

Marsh recommends incentives such as tuition reimbursement or internships to create more job opportunities for students who stay in Connecticut to attend college. In addition, he said he would support policies allowing successful students to finish high school in less than four years to further their education.

“So many kids waste their senior year of high school,” he said. “If you say that you can test out and go to . . . a technical school, community college, get into a four-year institution or an apprenticeship with unions, I’m all for that.”

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