February 14, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer
In laying out $3.4 billion in chips, spread over five years and dedicated solely for education, Gov. M. Jodi Rell is doing nothing more than calling the Democrats' bluff.
Connecticut has some of the finest public schools in the country but also the widest achievement gap between white students and their African American and Latino peers.
"OK, I've heard ya. Now, here's what I'm doing about it," the Republican governor proclaims in her $35.8 billion biennial budget proposal.
Democrats have been among the most vocal in proposing more spending for education reforms. With veto-proof margins in the legislature, Dems know that if they scuttle Rell's proposed increases in the income and cigarette taxes to help finance her education bonanza they'll have much explaining to do.
"I don't think there's a more pressing issue facing us than the achievement gap," said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.
"I'm really pleased with the governor's proposal. I think it's a great start. I view it as supporting a set of policies that colleagues and I have been pushing for years."
Of course, if lawmakers really wanted to tap a steady stream of revenue and earmark it only for education - while not messing with the income tax - they could isolate the $420 million-plus generated yearly in Connecticut's take from the casino slot machines. But asking for that kind of discipline in state spending is a little much, right?
Rell's proposal would increase funding for districts and expand the number of charter-school students. Per pupil funding for schools would increase 33 percent over the next four years. The Amistad Academy in New Haven has become a national model for dramatically increasing the test scores of its mostly poor minority students. The charter middle school has been so successful that New York City is spending millions replicating Amistad in the Big Apple.
Under Rell's plan, the birth-to-age-3 education program would also be expanded, more slots would be opened for city students to attend suburban schools and there would be significant expansion to city pre-school programs. The state would also pick up a higher portion of special education costs. Rell's plan has its caveats: more stringent math and science criteria; and high school students would have to pass a test to graduate.
"It blends increased support and accountability," said Alex Johnston, executive director of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a statewide education organization whose mission is to close the achievement gap. "From a political standpoint, she has put a marker down. The governor really exerted herself and took a leadership position here."
Two-thirds of the state's prison inmates are African Americans and Latinos, the bulk of whom come from urban centers. Two-thirds of the prison population don't have a high school diploma. The Department of Correction's budget, now more than $600 million, has been one of the state's fastest growing line items. Almost every social problem imaginable - including crime, teen pregnancy and the high school dropout rate - can be traced to poor education.
"None of those can be solved until our education can be shored up - and second to none," Rell spokesman Adam Liegeot said.
The wealthiest state in the union should be the unabashed leader in top-quality education for all. That Connecticut has lagged has been one of its greatest embarrassments.
Tired of all the rhetoric, the governor raised the ante.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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