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Spending Smartly On Schools

March 6, 2007

What's this grumbling about the governor's plan to spend billions of dollars more on public education?

Nobody has been too concerned that for each of Hartford's 24,000 students, taxpayers fork over nearly $15,000 - a figure larger than almost every other district. For this sucker investment, we get about 5 percent of students graduating from a four-year college.

When it comes to schools, more money is always the answer. Now, just as a Republican governor wants to open the tap, reformers on the left and right are asking what kind of results we are getting for all this spending.

Take reading. For years we've been pouring an extra $20 million a year into special reading programs. The "achievement gap" between white and minority students hasn't narrowed - it's expanded, according to research by Education Week.

We can't even tell why some districts are doing better or worse. We don't demand that our publicly funded state universities turn out effective reading teachers. We ignore our most successful charter schools.

We need another $1 billion a year for more of this? It's not money, it's some backbone that's needed.

"Money by itself doesn't create great schools," said Alex Johnston, who leads Conncan, a business-backed school education reform group.

"Some of the most effective things we can do in improving our schools don't cost a lot. But they do require a lot of political capital."

If they're going to jump on the billions-for-schools express, perhaps Gov. Rell and the legislature could also include some less expensive - but controversial - reforms. They should:

Allow parents in failing schools to leave for another public school, immediately.

Demand merit pay for teachers who succeed.

Make it easier to open experimental model schools.

Recruit non-educators to fill critical shortages in school administration.

Create a simple report card with a letter grade for all public schools.

Actually close schools that fail.

"Who in this state, including me - a conservative - wouldn't pay 10 percent more in income tax if you could finally give hope to kids in Hartford or Bridgeport," said Lewis Andrews, executive director of the Yankee Institute, which fights for lower taxes. "The people who are giving the money have a right to say, OK, what's the plan?"

The questions aren't just from the right. State Rep. Denise Merrill, the Democratic chairwoman of the appropriations committee, is also asking why we need to throw more money at education. She points out that for most, the public schools here are among the best in the land.

"We always end up with these blanket solutions to what are narrow problems," she said. "Over and over again, we keep identifying the problems."

"I'm ready for accountability measures. We have to look at what the districts are doing."

What she means is, don't just cave in and give money to cities and towns. The state must fund programs that work.

To do this, we need to track the performance of every child, so that educators know what works and what doesn't. Incredibly, this doesn't happen now - even with all our endless testing.

State Rep. Andy Fleischman, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, said that Rell's plan is a "great opportunity" for Connecticut.

Perhaps. But if all this does is push Hartford closer to $20,000 per student - or hand wealthy Greenwich and Darien more dough - it's one we should pass on.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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