The head of the state’s largest teachers’ union issued a call Wednesday to “upgrade the status” of Connecticut educators and address slipping wages and benefits–a call greeted with some skepticism by state and municipal leaders grappling with long-term budget problems.

After acknowledging some of the problems facing the state education system–including a wide achievement gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent white peers–Connecticut Education Association executive director Mary Loftus Levine offered “another way to begin to tackle these and other challenges.”

“Let’s upgrade the status of the teaching profession,” Levine told an audience of economists and government officials gathered for the release of the University of Connecticut’s quarterly economic journal, which included a new analysis linking local school quality with property values.

“Our country and our state must change how they view the teaching profession,” Levine said. “Part of a dwindling middle class, (Connecticut) teachers are locked into wage freezes without step advancements and asked to carry an ever-increasing portion of their health insurance costs.”

Though the 1986 General Assembly and then-Gov. William A. O’Neill launched a multi-year initiative, the Education Enhancement Act, that elevated Connecticut teachers’ compensation to the nation’s highest level within a few years, the Nutmeg State now ranks fourth and is moving downward while neighbors like New York and Massachusetts  head the other way, Levine said.

Last year 38 out of 70 districts negotiated contracts that froze wages and suspended step advancement for newer teachers, said Levine, whose association represents about 40,000 teachers.

Levine read from an essay included in the fall issue of The Connecticut Economy, which also includes a new analysis by economics professor Paramita Dhar, who found a significant correlation between local school performance and property values in the surrounding neighborhood.

Employing a methodology that relies on sales data, standardized test scores, property tax and per pupil spending rates, Dhar projects that a modest increase in test scores, could raise the value of a $250,000 Connecticut home by as much as 6.5 percent.

“This link between economic performance and education is widely acknowledged,” Levine said, adding that a powerful public school system also is part of the best solution to Connecticut’s high unemployment.

But state legislators, who closed a record-setting deficit of nearly $3.7 billion last spring on their way to adopting a $20.14 billion budget for the current fiscal year, said Wednesday that while inequities in the state’s education financing system should get a close look in 2012, a comprehensive effort to bolster teachers’ finances could take some time.

“We’re not in a great economy,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said. But in terms of any statewide effort to address teacher compensation, “It’s going to be a little hard to do right now. It’s going to be a work in progress.”

“I would love to see everyone make more money. I think everyone wants that,” said Sen. Robert J. Kane of Watertown, ranking Republican senator on the Appropriations Committee. “But we’re still seeing the worst economic times since the Great Depression. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be asking for raises during these economic times.”

Walker, who attended Wednesday’s briefing, said she believes a new task force of legislators and members of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration will develop some useful recommendations to consider in 2012 to reform the Education Cost Sharing program.

The single-largest state grant to cities and towns, ECS has long come under fire not distributing all funds called for through a formula that assesses communities based on the property values, local education spending, and numbers of poor households on federal assistance.

Walker, who is an administrator of an alternative high school in New Haven, said ECS reform might shift more dollars to urban centers, an area of concern cited by the Connecticut Education Association.

Levine, who also serves on the task force, said urban school districts have become “training grounds” and “feeder systems” for better-funded suburban schools who can lure the cities’ best teachers away with higher pay and better benefits.

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, Malloy’s budget director and co-chairman of the ECS task force, said teachers will play an integral role in reforming education financing and certainly would benefit from it to some degree.

But Barnes also said improving teacher’s compensation and benefits on a more comprehensive, statewide level, can’t take top priority “when we have such historically high unemployment and dire fiscal situations in many communities.”

The state’s other large teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers of Connecticut, issued a brief written statement without weighing in on the compensation issue directly.

“The expectations on public education have never been higher and yet funding for public schools has been cut for the past three years,” wrote AFT Connecticut President Sharon Palmer. “If the governor’s office and the legislature are truly committed to improving education, it will require many things, among which is ending over-reliance on property taxes and requiring the state to fund its share of education.”

Palmer added that “we also need to look at how we are going to recruit and retain teachers. There are many more types of jobs out there than there were twenty or thirty years ago, especially for women.”

Teachers also may not be the only ones laying claim to any additional state funding provided through the ECS grant program.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has long objected to artificial caps legislatures and governors have placed on the ECS program. CCM Executive Director James Finley said communities in the aggregate will receive about $700 million less than they are entitled to under this year’s $1.9 billion ECS system.

“The central issue facing Connecticut right now is the gross under-funding,” Finley said, adding that public works, police, fire and other non-education services at the municipal level have sacrificed through budget cuts for more than a decade as communities struggled to replace withheld ECS funds with local tax dollars. “To say it’s a teacher compensation issue, I think, misses the point. I know few school districts where there aren’t plenty of applications.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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