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 Republican Bob Stefanowski. Read Democrat Ned Lamont’s plans here and Oz Griebel, an independent petitioning candidate, here.
Bob Stefanowski says a new approach is needed to turn around chronically struggling school districts in Connecticut – a businessman’s approach.
“It’s just like running a business. We’ve got to make sure that the money that we are giving is best used, and appropriately used,” the Republican candidate said during a wide-ranging interview about education. “The money has to matter and it’s got to get to the students and I am not sure it’s doing that in all cases.”
“… There’s got to be a balance between here’s a million dollars that you are getting, or show me that you are using it appropriately.”
Stefanowski – whose resume includes holding top positions at large businesses both in Connecticut and overseas – regularly reminds voters on the campaign trail that he attended public schools in New Haven and North Haven. His three daughters have attended both public and private schools in Connecticut.
That experience has helped shape what he believes needs to be done to improve education in Connecticut.
Education is polling as one of the less important issues in this race among registered Republicans and Independents – behind the economy, taxes and government spending, according to a Quinnipiac Poll from earlier this month.
Here are five things to know about Stefanowski’s plans for education, if elected governor.
1. Spend existing pot of state education aid better
A lack of money is not what plagues struggling public schools, the candidate said.
“We are spending twice as much in kindergarten through grade 12 and our test scores are average. That tells me that other states are being more efficient with education funding than we are. We need to be more efficient,” said Stefanowski. “I just think there’s a lot of opportunity here to improve the money that we are spending and get better results. … The money’s gotta matter”
Each year, about $20,000 is spent per student in Connecticut compared to the national average of about $12,500, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.
Despite high overall spending by state and local governments, students from low-income families in Connecticut were in the middle of the pack in reading compared to poor students from other states, test results on “The Nation’s Report Card” show. In math, they scored below most states.
Stefanowski is promising to shield overall state education aid from cuts – despite state finances being projected to run $2 billion in deficit his first fiscal year in office. That’s a 10 percent shortfall and education spending makes up almost 20 percent of the state’s General Fund spending.
“We need to continue to invest in public education,” he said.
This prompted lawmakers in 2017 to overwhelmingly approve changes to the school-funding formula in an effort to quell the criticism. Lawmakers also acted amid a looming decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court on whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligations to educate students from poor districts.
The new formula means some better-off communities will lose small amounts of aid in each of the next 10 years.
Stefanowski seems to favor holding each of the state’s 169 municipalities harmless from any state education cuts, and was noncommittal when asked about making small cuts for some towns, as the formula calls for.
“I think the best way to provide funding for all of the communities is to get the economy running so that we don’t have to talk about cutting certain towns,” he said.
His plan is to boost the economy, and with it revenue for the state’s coffers, by eliminating the Connecticut income tax. However, he has no plans to push for income tax cuts during his first two years in office.
Rather, he plans to “reprioritize” and cut other areas of state spending in order to shield state education aid while balancing the budget.
“In at least every organization that I have run, I have been able to find at least 5 percent to 10 percent of stuff that could be eliminated and reallocated,” he said. “We have to prioritize where [state spending] is going to make the most impact and education should absolutely be the number one priority.”
He named three examples of things he considers wasteful spending — the busway from New Britain to Hartford that, by his math, costs “$1,000 an inch;” a property in Orange that the state purchased for well over its assessed value; and $10 million to fund a study for installing tolls on the Connecticut’s highways.
Asked for examples of cuts he would like to see to the state’s General Fund operating budget – and not bonded debt that the state borrows for, like all the examples he cited – Stefanowski was noncommittal.
“If the economy were to not improve, for example, none of the numbers are massive, but $10 million here, $20 million there, does start to add up,” he said.
2. All in for school choice
When the economy is strong, state tax revenue has increased by more than a billion dollars in a single year. For example, tax receipts increased by $1.16 billion between fiscal years 2010 and 2011, and no major tax increases went into effect during that time.
Stefanowski hopes that his approach to running state government would lead to such a rally.
If it does, he’d like to spend more money on magnet, charter, and vocational trade high schools.
“I am a big proponent of providing choice,” he said. “I think we need to provide more choice…. But it’s certainly not at the expense of the [traditional neighborhood] public school system.”
He hasn’t set a target for just how much he would like to see school choice expanded.
“I don’t have a threshold. But when you look at the statistics, you would think we could be doing more with magnet schools. We have some of the best magnet schools in the country,” he said.
The Republican will likely face a tug-of-war with many state legislators to spend more on school choice, however.
Following years of robust growth in state spending on charters and magnet schools, some state lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated that traditional neighborhood schools that students are zoned to attend have not seen similar spending hikes.
School choice options for Connecticut students – magnets, charters and other schools of choice – have increased steadily. Ten years ago, nearly 34,000 students were attending non-traditional public schools to which they had to apply – or, one in 17 public school students. During the 2016-17 school year, just over 66,500 students attended schools of choice, or one in eight students.
These schools receive about $600 million from the state each year.
3. Diversity in schools a priority
Stefanowski lives in Madison, a well-off shoreline town where only 4 percent of the students in public schools come from poor homes and which has one of the highest performing school districts in the state. Madison is located between New Haven and New London, two of the lowest performing districts that also have high concentrations of students living in poverty.
For him, one of the ways to improve the education being provided to students from those cities, and others in struggling districts, is to offer them enrollment in an integrated magnet school.
“I think it’s critical,” he said of having school enrollment that is diverse. “When I’ve run companies, I make sure that 50 percent of my team is diverse. I think it is critical that kids be surrounded by kids that are different from them. Most of the studies that you see show that a diverse student body allows kids to better perform. I think the more these schools are representative of the real world, the better off we are all going to be.”
Twenty-two years have passed since the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in the Sheff vs. O’Neill case 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 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.
And so, efforts to open additional magnets have stalled in recent years – and lawyers representing Hartford-area parents are headed back to court in February to ask a judge to compel the state to offer more seats in desegregated schools.
Thirty-one percent of Hartford’s black and Hispanic students attended an integrated magnet schools with thousands of suburban students last school year.
Stefanowski said he doesn’t have a legal strategy for how he would approach the Sheff case, “But I would say my broader objective is to make sure all the constituencies have access to the best education and magnet schools were set up to do that. I think we could do a better job with that. That would be my focus.”
4. Change how teachers are paid
The Republican candidate believes there needs to be incentives for teachers to work in the struggling districts.
The superintendent of Bridgeport testified at length during a school-funding trial in 2016 that she faces an exodus of great teachers 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.
Stefanowski wants to stop that exodus.
“I think we need to incentivize our best teachers to do the right thing and stay there or go into some of the more troubled schools to help out,” he said. “You may want to look at some higher salaries in some of these troubled districts to incentivize your best teachers to go there.”
But he also doesn’t want it to be a soft landing for poor-performing teachers, either.
“I am a big believer in evaluations for everybody, and teachers, and having there be some consequences to that,” he said. “We have to make sure you have your best teachers staying and … promoted.”
The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) tracked teacher contracts between districts and their unions during the 2015-16 school year, and found that 5 percent of contracts in the state offer performance or incentive pay.
Mandating such changes statewide will surely be a huge battle for Stefanowski with the state’s teachers unions.
5. A plan to shore up retired teachers’ pensions
One of the state’s fastest growing expenses are the state’s required contributions to the state’s teacher pension fund as the state works to chip away at its $13 billion in unfunded liabilities.
Stefanowski promises not to ask teachers to contribute more to shore up the fund, and instead proposes dedicating a portion of the state’s lottery and to tap the state’s reserves to pay for the escalating costs.
The reserve is currently estimated to have just under $1.2 billion, according to Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo’s office. In addition, both Lembo and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget office project the state could be poised to deposit another $800 million this fiscal year.