Connecticut's failure to reach the finals in the "Race to the Top" competition for school grants has made us the hole in the doughnut, surrounded by successful states — Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island — who now have better chances at winning hundreds of millions for their educational systems than we do.
Although Connecticut's chances have dimmed for a share of billions of federal dollars, they are not snuffed out entirely, because the state can still enter a second round of applications, due in three months.
Yet Connecticut's flunking a competition that rewards educational innovation should shake the state out of its complacency (some would stay smugness) concerning its supposed educational superiority.
Here's the reality: Connecticut, once a national leader in education, has spent years clinging to the status quo — and falling behind. This is not the fault of state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan, who has pushed for reform since coming here from Massachusetts a few years ago.
That state, egged on by its Education Reform Act of 1993, is now out in front in math and reading test scores. Massachusetts' Race to the Top application was sweetened by its legislature voting to double its charter school seats and give superintendents the power to fire bad teachers and overhaul the worst schools.
In Connecticut, barriers to fixing poor schools remain, chief among them a system of home rule that divides the state into 166 school districts, all setting their own priorities; school boards' general resistance to change; and a legislature that for years has refused to risk offending teachers unions by demanding greater accountability.
The yawning educational achievement gap between minority and white children here has been the worst in the nation for years. That embarrassment should have sparked more fundamental change long ago. The good news is that, in the application for first-round consideration, Mr. McQuillan pushed for, and got, letters of support from 126 school districts and 80 interested institutions (including some teachers unions). That's an impressive accomplishment, one that should persuade the legislature to give Mr. McQuillan the tools to make reforms and bolster the grant application in the next round.
These reforms include linking teacher evaluations to student performance and increasing funding for charter schools — as well as removing some state-imposed limitations on their growth.
Connecticut's failure might yet sow the seeds for success, if it reverses our slide toward educational mediocrity.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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