Five things to know about Lamont’s plans for public schools, if elected governor

Connecticut’s governor for the next four years will face a wide range of challenges to improve the state’s public schools. The CT Mirror spoke with the candidates about how they will approach education policy. Today, here’s Democrat Ned Lamont. Read Republican Bob Stefanowski’s plans here and Oz Griebel, an independent petitioning candidate, here.

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Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Ned Lamont, right, talks with students and a principal at an elementary school in Middletown.

Ned Lamont has no plans to force school districts to make the changes he thinks are necessary to improve education if elected Connecticut’s next governor.

“I am not going to sit around with a heavy hand from the governor’s office and say, ‘You do this. You do that.’ But I would like to work with [local officials] to give them incentives,” the Democratic candidate said during a wide-ranging interview about education. “I support everybody’s feisty independence, but I’ve got to find ways to get everybody to work together better.”

More plainly, he prefers the state provide carrots versus using a stick to spur school improvement.

But he won’t have many carrots to offer, he acknowledges, given the state’s finances are projected to run $2 billion in the red his first fiscal year in office – a 10 percent shortfall that will be hugely challenging to make up.

Education is polling as the second most important issue to registered Democrats in this race – behind the economy and in front of taxes, government spending and transportation, according to a Quinnipiac Poll from earlier this month.

Here are five other things to know about Lamont and education.

1. Once a supporter of controversial education reforms, he is now focusing his attention elsewhere

A week before hundreds of angry teachers rallied outside the state Capitol in 2012 to protest Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s controversial education reform package, Lamont penned an opinion piece that ran in the Stamford Advocate.

“Connecticut is getting close on ground-breaking education reform efforts; don’t punt now, let’s drive for the end zone,” Lamont wrote in support of Malloy’s proposals.

Lamont – like many business leaders – thought linking teacher evaluations to test scores, getting rid of life-long tenure for educators, and rolling out the Common Core curriculum standards were necessary to improve schools.

Fast forward six years and Lamont doesn’t regret his position, but plans to focus his energy elsewhere, if elected governor.

The cover of the Connecticut Education Association’s mailer giving Lamont a 100 percent for his position on education.

That has landed him the endorsement from both teachers’ unions – and a 100 percent score from the Connecticut Education Association, the largest union, for his position on various issues important to them.

He leans on his experience during the 1990s volunteering in one of the state’s lowest-performing schools – Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport – to shape his opinions about education. He has also served as a board member for Teach For America and the Connecticut Council for Education reform, a business-backed group that also supported Malloy’s reforms

“Teachers felt disrespected as part of that reform process. But I’ve also told the teachers, ‘You’ve got to come forward with your own affirmative ideas or else others are going to come in and do it,'” he said. “They have a place at the table when it comes to making these reforms and changes. Don’t just say no. I don’t need that.”

2. Stop the teacher bashing, start attracting talent (with incentives)

The state for years has had the unwelcome distinction of having among the largest gaps in the nation in achievement between black and white students, as well as Hispanic and white students.

Asked to name the driving force behind these drastically different student outcomes, Lamont points to the staff turnover in struggling schools he witnessed firsthand in Bridgeport.

“I just remember that 40 to 50 percent of the teachers from this high school alway wanted to leave at the end of the year. They wanted to go to Trumbull, they wanted to go someplace where they were doing more education and less discipline,” he said.

Staff turnover hasn’t slowed since his time in the district. The superintendent of the struggling district testified during a school-funding trial in 2016 that she faces an exodus of great teachers from Bridgeport each year due to grim working conditions, and higher pay and more support in nearby suburban schools. Some 200 teachers, about one out of every five in Bridgeport, leave each year, and school officials are regularly unable to fill several of those positions. The result is that hundreds of students are taught by a revolving door of substitutes who are ill-equipped to teach their assigned subjects.

Lamont’s solution: give people incentives to go into the profession.

“I want to encourage our best and brightest to teach in our toughest schools,” he said. “It’s about giving people incentives to be there.”

He proposes forgiving student loans for those who teach in a struggling district for 5 years. He also wants to provide scholarships for minorities so the workforce better aligns with student demographics.

“Those are the type of things I would like to do to get the very best teachers in schools like that,” he said.

The federal government has such a program – but the U.S. Department of Education recently reported that fewer than 1 percent of those who applied for loan forgiveness were approved.

State-funded scholarships worth up to $20,000 for minorities to go into teaching have been scaled back in recent years – from 50 new people getting awards in 2015 to 19 awarded last fiscal year.

Lamont – who was a guest lecturer in Central Connecticut State University’s Peace Studies Program for years – said he hates it when he hears college students dismiss teaching as a career.

“Maybe there are some ways to change the teacher’s program to make that more appealing, like less debt, more time in the classroom as an apprentice teacher,” he said.

What’s not needed to improve struggling schools is a focus on weeding out the bad teachers.

“When you talk about accountability, often people are talking about firing people and I think that sends the wrong message,” he said. “Yeah, you have some last resorts if things aren’t working, but I want to give people pride in teaching and respect in what they’re doing. … I know how tough the situation is in a lot of these districts.”

3. A promise not to cut overall state education grant, might redistribute to poor towns

The state budget will provide cities and towns just over $2 billion this year through the Education Cost Sharing grant, the state’s primary grant to fund public schools.

How the state funds public schools is so messy and complicated that parents, educators, legislators, the governor, and a Superior Court judge have characterized the setup as broken.

This prompted lawmakers in 2017 to overwhelmingly approve changes to the school-funding formula in an effort to quell displeasure. The changes were also made amid a looming decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court on whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation in how it funds schools.

In order to get the changes passed, legislators from both parties approved minor cuts in education aid, rolled out over 10 years, for the wealthiest municipalities. Additional state funding – about $40 million added each year – would be provided for the remaining communities.

Lamont isn’t committing to supporting that formula, which would require the state to spend an additional $38.7 million on education during his first fiscal year in office.

“It’s a worthy goal. It would be my first priority, but I cannot promise that. I’ve got a two billion deficit,” he said. “I can’t over-promise. … I am just trying to do everything I can to do no harm as I go through this brutal budget year coming up.”

Lamont – who lives in Greenwich, one of the state’s wealthiest towns – wouldn’t rule out redistributing more of the existing pot of education aid to poor communities.

“We’ll see. Generally, I think that we ought to focus our money on the towns that are the most in need given the incredible achievement gap in this state,” he said. “I would keep the overall grant the same, not town-by-town, but the overall grant.”

4. Enough with opening regional magnet schools to provide an integrated education for city youth

Twenty-two years have passed since the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Hartford’s poor and minority children “suffer daily” from the inequities caused by severe racial and economic isolation.

The state has since spent billions to build dozens of regional magnet schools through the state – and hundreds of millions each year to operate them – in an effort to attract white, suburban youth to attend integrated schools with city students.

But that approach is now facing pushback from parents who are frustrated there aren’t enough seats in the high-performing magnet schools, and state lawmakers who don’t have the money to spend on opening new regional magnet schools or want any additional resources to go to the struggling neighborhood schools.

A screen grab from Lamont’s Twitter feed.

Lamont said he has no plans to support the opening of new magnets and would focus on boosting neighborhood schools that students are zoned to attend.

“I generally want really great community schools,” Lamont said. “Most of the parents I talk with in say, Hartford, say, ‘I really wish my kid went to a great community school. I am glad she has the opportunity to go across town to that magnet, but it’s a 40 minute bus ride and I don’t get to be as involved and I don’t know her teacher and she has to leave before some of the after school activities because it’s 40 minutes to get back.'”

If elected, Lamont will face that Sheff vs. O’Neill desegregation case heading back to court, with a hearing expected in Superior Court in February. He said he supports efforts to end court involvement – even though half of Hartford’s students still attend segregated schools.

“I happen to think we have to raise up the level of schools in the city,” he said. “I think we can take a pause on this, on the legal remedies. Let me get the educators together.”

He sees an opportunity to enroll more city youth in suburban schools, however, because of declining enrollment in suburban districts.

“I know that many of our ring schools are losing students and I know that many of our urban schools are chock-a-block full. If Waterbury could send some of their students to Oxford or something,” he said. “You could get some of the diversity and also allow them to be big enough to keep going.”

He wouldn’t force districts to take more city students, however. Rather, he would try to offer incentives.

“Maybe I can do something with ECS to get some of the funding to follow the student to that school. It would be a relief valve for the Waterbury school district and it adds a little more base to that ring school, which is losing students and having a hard time keeping its doors open,” he said.

Such an approach would likely face major pushback from those who would stand to lose state aid under that setup. Currently, the city district doesn’t lose state aid when a child leaves to go to a regional magnet school and gets to keep half the state grant when a child leaves for a suburban school through the Open Choice program.

5. Use the lottery to shore up the teachers’ pension and refinance payment schedule

Lamont wants to channel the annual proceeds from the Connecticut Lottery – about $350 million a year – exclusively to the state’s starved pension fund for municipal school teachers. Those proceeds are currently routed to the state’s overall General Fund, which funds the state’s annual teacher pension payment as well as other state agencies.

Ned Lamont campaign

Ned Lamont at a preschool program in Groton

This proposal was first made by the state Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Competitiveness last year.

Under this scenario, the legislature could assign lottery proceeds for the next 10 years to the teachers’ pension — a revenue stream likely worth more than $3.5 billion over the decade. And while it would take 10 years for the pension system to receive all of those funds, the fund’s assets, on paper, would jump by the full $3.5 billion right away. This would raise the fund’s overall fiscal health, and possibly give the state more options to restructure annual pension contributions.

“Move the lottery. That’s supposed to be for education,” Lamont said. “That would give me enough of an asset base that I could renegotiate with [the lottery proceeds] being on the Teacher Pension Fund. If I could do that, I could stretch out the payments over a longer period of time.”

The Mirror’s Budget Reporter Keith Phaneuf contributed to this report.

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