Legislators Hear Opposition To Flat-Funding State Education Aid [Hartford Courant]

February 26, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, president of the New Britain Board of Education, had strong words for the governor’s proposal to flat-fund the state’s education cost-sharing grant.

“Although I fully appreciate and understand the financial difficulties the state faces,” Beloin-Saavedra told the legislature’s Education Committee Wednesday. “I cannot fathom going down this road again — adopting a multiyear proposal of flat-funding [Education Cost Sharing grants] while expecting our educators to close the largest achievement gap in the nation. This would be pulling the rug out from under us.”

Beloin-Saavedra said New Britain had made progress in the past three years as one of the state’s Alliance Districts, which are targeted for improvement and eligible for additional state funding. Class size has generally dropped from 29 or 30 to about 25 and the high school graduation rate has improved she said.

But if education funding is flat next year and the other programs for distressed districts are also reduced — the governor has proposed cutting $4.7 million from the Commissioner’s Network program for troubled schools and $6.5 million from the Priority School Districts program — Beloin-Saavedra said serious damage will be done to districts like New Britain.

“New Britain needs an additional $5.3 million just to fund the status quo operation next year,” Beloin-Saavedra said. “We cannot improve student outcomes if we have to lay our teachers off, thus increasing class size and reducing course offerings.”

During a hearing that was expected to last about 10 hours with 76 people signed up to speak, legislators heard testimony on the governor’s plan to pump more funding into charter and magnet schools, on his plan to require full-day kindergarten statewide and on other issues.

Sen. Toni Boucher R-Wilton, called full-day kindergarten “a laudable goal” but asked how districts without it would pay for “this huge unfunded mandate.”

Kathy Demsey, the state education department’s chief financial officer, said that with declining enrollments, districts may have extra classroom space and could “repurpose” teachers. She said there are 13 districts that don’t offer full-day kindergarten. With the new more rigorous Common Core State Standards, Demsey said, “We’d like everyone to be on a level playing field.”

Dianna R. Wentzell, the interim state education commissioner, also said the state could provide some technical assistance or advice to districts that are adding full-day kindergarten and that districts that have already done so could be available for consultation.

Malloy’s proposal to increase the number of schools in a single district eligible for inclusion in the Commissioner’s Network also came under fire. Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat and the co-chairman of the committee, asked Wentzell why that would make sense if the governor is planning to reduce funding to the program.

Wentzell replied that allowing districts to add more schools would reduce the “isolation” of a single school and enable more of a district-wide improvement strategy.

The governor’s plan to pump close to $60 million into charter and magnet schools over the next two years also raised questions.

Beloin-Saavedra asked, “Why do my public students have to go to aging or under-supplied buildings while the state funds new magnet and charter schools? Why are the school systems that serve the majority of schoolchildren treated as less than?”

Rep. Robert Sanchez, D-New Britain, responded that he’s “not against charters and magnets,” but said it gets “really upsetting when I see our urban schools don’t get the funding they need to move forward and tackle the problem of the achievement gap.”

Sanchez said the proposed budget is “a nightmare when it comes to urban areas. … We are always talking about closing the achievement gap, but we don’t put the resources in there to continue to do that.”

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, also asked why “the vast majority of our charter schools are hyper-segregated. Is that something we are going to allow to happen?”

Demsey said she thinks that one of the barriers to integrating charter schools with students from suburban districts is a lack of transportation.

Eight hours into the hearing, Fleischmann said that he was hearing “a lot of support for full-day kindergarten — and a lot of concerns about lack of funds for full-day kindergarten” as well as for summer and extended day programs.

He said he’d also heard from a lot of people concerned about Malloy’s proposal to cut $4.6 million from the Interdistrict Cooperative program. That program provides students with a variety of opportunities, designed to increase achievement and bring together children from different socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Andrew Greenlaw a senior at RHAM High School in Hebron said the Interdistrict Cooperative program enabled him to attend a four-week summer marine science program.

“Before I was a camper at Project Oceanology,” Greenlaw said, “I had many issues ranging from low self-esteem, poor grades to living an unhealthy lifestyle.” He said the program helped him turn his life around.