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Economy Puts Education Initiative On Hold

Schools

ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER

November 22, 2008

The much-touted effort to improve quality and standards at high schools across Connecticut has fallen victim to the state's dismal economy.

Bowing to financial pressures, state Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan said officials will put off implementing the changes for another two years.

As recently as last month, officials had hoped to move forward with the reform effort, and planned to begin implementing the changes next fall, starting with 20 to 25 school districts at a two-year cost of $16 million. They argued that the tough economy made it even more important to invest in changes to make high school students better prepared for higher education and the workforce.

But as state budget projections grew bleaker, McQuillan said it became clear that any costly new initiatives would not be viable.

"That $16 million is simply out of reach now," he said.

Instead, McQuillan said, officials will spend the next two years developing plans and considering low-cost strategies, then begin implementing the changes in 20 to 25 districts in the fall of 2011. The reform effort still must be approved by the legislature, and McQuillan plans to seek that approval in the 2009 session.

"We'll get the ship ready to sail, and when we have a beckoning tide and a little money to put into the program, then we'll get going," he said.

Proposed changes include increasing high school graduation requirements and adding programs to bolster student engagement and keep at-risk students in school.

The plan, similar to high school reform efforts in other states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, is intended to address concerns that an increasing number of students graduate from high school unprepared for college or the workforce.

It would raise the number of credits required for students to graduate from 20 to 25 and require students to take specific courses, including four years of math. Students also would be required to pass end-of-course exams in five subjects and complete a "capstone" project an independent study, portfolio of work, internship or community service in their senior year.

Though the course requirements only address high school, much of the work would begin in middle schools. Sixth-graders would work with an adviser to develop a plan for their course of study and goals, and update it throughout their education.

The effort to implement the changes statewide over eight years was estimated at $183.9 million. The bulk of the money would go toward support programs such as summer school and after-school programs for students who need help meeting the increased requirements.

State education officials are looking at a variety of budget issues connected to the faltering economy. The State Board of Education still must vote on potential cuts to the education department's budget for the next two years, including the delay in high school reform. Several board members considered the plans in a budget workshop this week.

Like other state agencies, the Department of Education has been asked by Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office to identify budget cuts of up to 10 percent. For the Department of Education, that equates to $283.5 million. But McQuillan and members of the State Board of Education have balked at the idea of cutting that much. Because more than 90 percent of the department's budget funds grants for school districts and municipalities most of it for the poorest districts officials have said that it would be nearly impossible to make $283.5 million in cuts without reducing aid to municipalities.

"That, for everyone, is sort of the untouchable," McQuillan said. "That's probably the one source of revenue that people depend on so heavily that if it's trimmed back, it just reverberates down to every district in the state and impacts them all, and some very, very severely."

The board is likely, instead, to identify smaller cuts by eliminating most grants under $750,000 and education support programs under $600,000, reducing other grants and maintaining caps on continuing grants, a reduction of $45.2 million for the coming fiscal year.

The cuts would include money for after-school programs, efforts to support students who have children of their own, the Reach Out and Read program that promotes literacy through pediatricians' offices, and a mental health program that works on early intervention for at-risk elementary school children.

Officials also have discussed cutting $5 million to $8 million from the Connecticut Technical High School System. But the department is also seeking to add $36.6 million in new spending in the coming fiscal year, most of it to comply with the latest settlement in the Sheff v. O'Neill school desegregation lawsuit.

The Sheff money $22.8 million in 2009 and $26.4 million in 2010 would cover changes to how magnet schools are funded, increased grants to reflect the cost of transporting students to out-of-district magnet schools, and increased funding for suburban districts that accept Hartford students through the Open Choice program.

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.
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