Connecticut's education reform effort seemed in peril earlier this spring, but in the past week the General Assembly restored funding that had been threatened, committing $355 million in new money for education over the next two years.
"I really can't say enough positive things about what the governor and the legislature have done," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
In late April, the legislature's Appropriations Committee proposed cutting about $47 million from the education budget, threatening hard-won reforms, including a new teacher evaluation system, new state charter schools and efforts to turn around low-performing schools.
"Together the governor and the General Assembly found a way to support education in nearly every dimension," Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said Tuesday. "Nearly every aspect of the education budget was restored, whether it was the replenishment of an area that was cut or whether it was the fulfillment of a proposed increase."
Pryor said the governor and legislature "have found the way to provide the resources we need in order for our reforms to succeed."
Some of the key education reforms come at a comparatively modest cost within an overall state budget of $37.7 billion over two years.
Preserved in the budget is $13 million over the next two years to pay for training that's needed to take the new teacher evaluation system statewide this fall. Pryor said the budget for "talent development" includes funding to train 5,000 school administrators and others as evaluators.
Another key budget item that was on the chopping block but survived is $12.5 million to improve as many as 21 low-performing, troubled schools. And about $10 million was included to establish four new state charter schools.
"It's worth noting that no new charter school has been authorized since 2007," Pryor said, "and no new one has opened since 2008."
It's also the first time that funding has been set aside -- $14.6 million over the next two years -- to help districts implement the new, more rigorous "common core" academic standards. Pryor said the money includes funds to train coaches to provide assistance to districts.
In addition, the state budget that lawmakers approved includes an additional $62 million over two years to increase the number of seats in magnet schools and $35.4 million more for Open Choice enrollment, a program that enables city kids to enroll in suburban schools.
Cirasuolo said the budget agreed upon by the governor and legislators fully funds "the reforms that were put in place last year, so we don't have an unfunded mandate on our hands. They have done what needs to be done so we can improve schooling in the state of Connecticut."
The budget also includes a $152 million increase in the education cost-sharing program -- the state's funding program for public education -- that will be invested primarily in struggling school districts.
The new dollars for education total $126.2 million in fiscal year 2014, and $229 million the following year. Last year legislators added $87 million in new dollars for education.
Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said he is also "deeply grateful" that the governor and the legislature restored about $28 million that had been eliminated at one point for bus transportation.
"We are very pleased that the legislature and the governor stepped up to the plate," said Rader, "and really showed that education is one of their top priorities."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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