Connecticut Might Be Squandering its Chance to Get Federal Education Dollars

July 16, 2010

“We need to maximize federal funding.” It is a phrase that is commonly heard around the halls of the State Capitol, especially when times are tough and the legislature is looking for ways to close a budget deficit. The more federal funding that is put into the state budget, the less burdensome the fiscal problems become, or at least that is the theory that many in the General Assembly have come to believe.

This year, the legislature had a real opportunity to leverage a greater share of federal dollars for education as part of President Obama’s Race to the Top program. Unveiled last July by the President, the program is designed to “spur systemic reform and embrace innovative approaches to teaching and learning in America’s schools.”

Congress has provided approximately $4.35 billion to the program with federal stimulus money, and each state can compete for funding in two separate phases that are to encourage education innovation and reform. If successful, Connecticut could stand to gain nearly $175 million over the next four years. With local school boards across the state struggling to get their budgets for next year passed without cutting important programs and teachers, this sounds like something that our state should be taking full advantage of.

According the U.S. Department of Education, to qualify, reform must include adopting new standards to better prepare students for college and the workforce, developing data systems that measure student growth, recruit and reward effective teachers, and turning around low achieving schools.

The initial round of applicants produced 16 finalists. Only Delaware and Tennessee were granted funding. Connecticut’s “effort” placed us 25th out of the 40 states who applied. Fortunately, there is a second round of grants, but to have any chance at accessing the money, the legislature had to enact changes before June 1st, making the 2010 session the last opportunity for reform.

But instead of passing a bill that took direct aim at reform and would provide the state with the best chance of success at getting funding, the legislature’s Education Committee was looking for consensus among different advocacy groups representing teachers and charter schools. In an April 26, 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said: “Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won’t win. And proposals that drive real reform will win.”

The bill that became law this year did take some significant steps in improving the state’s education system. Starting in 2018, the minimum credits to graduate is being increased from 20 to 25 and those students will now be required to pass end-of-year exams in algebra, geometry, biology and American History, and 10th grade English.

While many experts agree this will help Connecticut’s chances of getting federal funds, the primary reform absent from the state’s effort is a concept called “money follows the student.” This concept guarantees that state charter schools (as well as magnet schools and open choice programs) receive state funding to the same extent as local and regional boards of education because it is based on enrollment.

Currently, a school district that sends a student to another school (does not educate that student) still counts that student in the funding formula they receive from the state, thus the money the charter school should be receiving for that student is staying with the school district where the student resides. Other states have already made changes to their laws that provide for money follows the student.

Another possible problem for the state deals with a subtle change to the bill made by the education committee that weakened the teacher performance procedures. Knowing that this is one of the primary factors of the Race to the Top guidelines, I joined my Republican colleagues in the Senate supporting an amendment that would have made data and indicators on student academic growth a significant factor in evaluating teacher performance. Unfortunately, this measure failed on a near party-line vote.

Race to the Top is a laudable program and it sets some far reaching goals that will end up reforming our nation’s education system. But the only way for it to work is to ensure that our state is doing everything it can to live to the requirements. With 39 other states fighting for funding under the program, we need to make sure we are doing everything we possibly can to “maximize federal funds.” I’m not so sure we did.