Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley takes a businessman's approach to improving education.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley takes a businessman's approach to improving education.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley takes a businessman’s approach to improving education.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley takes a businessman’s approach to improving education.

Connecticut’s governor for the next four years will face a wide range of challenges to improve the state’s public schools. The Mirror spoke with both major party candidates about their approach to education. Today, Republican challenger Tom Foley talks about his plans. Gov. Dannel Malloy’s approach to education appeared Monday. 

Tom Foley says he is not interested in changing education in most of the schools in Connecticut.

“We have some of the best schools in the country,” he says. “Where local control is working for public schools, leave it alone.”

For some troubled districts, however, its another approach — a businessman’s approach.

Foley says there are some 100,000 children stuck in “failing” schools. He wants to give their parents the option to send them to a better school within their town’s borders.

The Greenwich businessman said parents would of course be limited in the schools they had to choose from, as there would need to be space in the school they seek to enroll their child. And he is making no promise to increase capacity at high-performing schools or to open new charter or magnet schools. Instead, he wants to “reconstitute” these low-performing schools in order to turn them around.

“What you hope is that everybody gets better, that there’s pressure to get better. So what I hope is that when people realize that if they don’t get better they are not going to have any students. They are not going to have any resources,” Foley said.

Foley’s approach is one that somewhat mirrors the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates students attending persistently failing or dangerous schools be given the option to attend a better one.

‘Reconstituting’ failing schools

The centerpiece of Foley’s plan for education is a system of rating schools using an A through F grading system. The state currently has a five-tier system to judge schools’ educational progress, but Foley said those labels — excelling, progressing, transitioning, review, focus and turnaround – can be confusing for parents.

“I don’t think parents should have to dig through reams and reams of material to find out what does ‘turnaround’ mean… Parents can understand an A through F grading system,” he said.

So what factors would contribute to a school’s earning a B versus a D?

“It’s student outcomes,” he said. He would make that assessment using things like student test scores on Advanced Placement and state reading tests and “adjusting for the population that you are teaching. And so it needs to be partly subjective, not strictly basing it on test scores,” he said.

Once schools are rated, Foley wants to “reconstitute” the schools that are not improving after a year or two.

“They’ve basically failed in their mission, so we’re going to get new people in running them. If they require renovations, whatever it is… If they don’t get better on their own, you need to step in and make them better with whatever action is required,” he said.

Asked if teachers would lose their jobs in these schools, Foley said, “Well not automatically, but if that’s the problem. It doesn’t mean that collective bargaining rights or the union goes away. No, that has nothing to do with it. But if the teachers are the problem, then you end up doing something with the teachers. You retrain them… something.”

Foley said he supports giving these schools the best teachers by allowing them to pay teachers based on their performance; and if layoffs are necessary, allowing their evaluations to be considered, not just how long they have been teaching.

The approach to turning around underperforming schools during the tenure of Foley’s opponent – Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy – has been for the state to provide a grant to entice local educators to make certain changes, like extending the school day or offering preschool.

The changes must be approved by a “turnaround committee,” of which half are appointed by the teachers’ union and the other half by school officials and the state education commissioner. Foley said he wouldn’t seek to change that process, if elected.

“I am not proposing doing anything different from what they are doing for failing schools,” he said.

Currently state law limits to four per district and 25 statewide the number of schools where the state can intervene with a turnaround plan. Foley doesn’t want to limit the number of failing schools in which the state can intervene each year.

“You know, with students, if you are talking about waiting more than a year or two, that’s a huge cost on those kids,” he said.

Tom Foley education ad
Tom Foley’s political advertising portrays his interest in children.
Tom Foley’s political advertising portrays his interest in children.

Letting students (and funding) leave failing schools

When a school is identified as “failing,” Foley wants to let students, and the funding the school receives for them, leave the school.

Essentially, the businessman said, he wants student and parent demand driving where state education funding goes.

“The whole idea of the marketplace working and letting parents make these choices is that resources will go to the good schools. So it kind of sets up a bit of a competitive environment. I hope it does. So the schools that are losing kids and losing resources will up their game,” he said.

But students in districts like Bridgeport, where many of the schools are underperforming, would not be able to attend schools in their neighboring communities like Westport, which has some of the highest-achieving schools in Connecticut.

Foley said allowing students to enroll in neighboring districts would be too complicated to administer, and he is not convinced that approach has worked in the Hartford region.

“Then you are talking about two different municipal governments. Two different school managements. It just becomes so complicated. I am just not sure it would work. They actually tried that here in Hartford and I think it’s been…  I am not sure people feel it’s worked,” he said. He was referring to the dozens of regional magnet schools the state funded in response to a state Supreme Court ruling ordering the desegregation of schools in the capital city.

Critics of Foley’s plan say expecting schools to improve with fewer resources is unrealistic. The state’s largest teachers’ union estimates this “money follows the child” policy would cost the state’s lowest-performing districts at least $39.5 million a year. That estimate assumes the state would take money away from traditional public schools for every student that is currently enrolled in charter schools.

“The Foley plan guts local public schools,” says a campaign advertisement e-mailed this week to the thousands of teachers in the Connecticut Education Association.

In at least one sense, money already follows students when they leave their traditional public school for a magnet school, since districts pay their students’ tuition to magnet schools. The state also pays charter school operators for each student it enrolls and the local district does not get reimbursed for that student. However, state lawmakers have not allowed any district to lose state education funding from one year to the next. Additionally, local districts are required to pick up the cost of special education services for charter students who would have attended their schools.

This approach to having money follow the students to whatever school they attend has its supporters, including ConnCAN, a group that advocates for the expansion of charter schools and school choice.

“This idea that students would be fleeing schools and leave schools bankrupt is a bit unfounded,” said Jennifer Alexander, ConnCAN’s chief executive officer. She points out that no district in the state has more than 12 percent of its students attending charter schools. “This is about getting money to schools that are working.”

‘Shifting’ state education aid

Foley said he does not think the amount the state sends some districts for education is adequate.

“Can we significantly reduce that number of kids who are in schools that are underperforming without spending more money? No. My commitment as governor would be to get that number as close to zero as we can.”

But Foley said his administration would not hold individual cities and towns harmless from losing state money for education.

“I think we spend money on some things, though, that probably aren’t helping with student outcomes, and we are probably sending money to some school districts based on our [funding] formula that don’t need money as much as other districts,” he said.

“I am not looking to reduce the amount of money that the state spends assisting cities and towns. But if we are sending money to a town or a city that doesn’t need it, or we are sending a lot more than we need, and there are places where we are not sending enough, I would definitely look at shifting where the money is going.”

The state legislature has historically been unwilling to reduce the amount of state aid a town receives, even if that municipality’s overall student population or the number of high-need students it is responsible for educating declines.

This year, the legislature spent an additional $1 million in order to avoid having any towns lose money through application of the state’s education funding formula. The formula provides money to cities and towns based on student need and the town’s financial ability to fund education.

One size does not fit all

As for high-achieving districts, Foley calls it a mistake that the Malloy Administration mandated teacher evaluations and standardized tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards for every district. He would have only imposed that level of state regulation on low-achieving districts, he said.

The U.S. Department of Education required states to launch statewide teacher evaluations linked to student outcomes and implement Common Core in order to receive a waiver from the punitive requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Foley also plans to restrict low-performing districts’ ability to graduate students who can’t pass high school-level exams. Requiring students to pass an exit exam is something about half the states have in place, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank that tracks education policy.

And while critics contend it may lead to higher dropout rates, that’s something that hasn’t happened in states with these exit exams, according to ECS.

Foley also wants to hold back students in third grade who can’t read, a proposal that went nowhere because of cost concerns when the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus made it in 2012.

Getting his changes into law

There is no shortage of democratic legislators who oppose Foley’s plans.

And with Foley likely having a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives if he is elected, he is going to have to work with them if he wants to change how schools in the state operate.

“I think its irresponsible for someone to say my education reform agenda is a nonstarter,” Foley said. “I assume we are all on the same team in that we want to solve the problem of insufficient outcomes for far too many young people in Connecticut… We will argue over the best way to do it.”

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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