Race to the Top Connecticut's heart just wasn't in it
Hartford Courant editorial
August 08, 2010
Connecticut's leaders didn't have their hearts in the race for $3.4 billion in federal funds to improve student achievement, despite the thousand of hours they put into it.
This state's share of Race to the Top funding could have been up to $175 million. That's a big loss of money that could have gone to narrowing the state's worst-in-the-nation achievement gap.
Losing out on federal funds is becoming a bad habit Connecticut has to break.
States that didn't make it to the final round in the competition, including Connecticut, won't find out until September just how they fell short of the mark.
But it's already clear that Connecticut lacked the initiative, courage and vision that winning states showed.
Missed Signals On Teacher Evaluations
Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan are understandably disappointed. But the state may have blown its application by, among other things, suggesting it was committed to its plan for school reforms only if the plan was funded and that it wouldn't override teachers' contracts.
The Rell administration apparently misread the Obama administration's signals. The federal government was looking for bold leadership, not conditional buy-in.
For example, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made it abundantly clear that tying teacher evaluations to student performance was critical to getting Race to the Top funds. Connecticut's legislation merely promised to set up a group to study the problem and adopt guidelines in 2013.
New Jersey's plan had virtually no backing from teachers unions because of Gov. Chris Christie's insistence that it go ahead and tie teacher evaluations to student performance. Mr. Christie overrode the compromise plan his education commissioner had designed with the teachers unions.
And he repeatedly said he'd undertake reforms whether or not the U.S. Department of Education funded them.
That state ended up among the finalists.
Other Ways Connecticut Fell Short
There were other signs that Connecticut was halfhearted about the Obama administration's direction on school reforms, even though Connecticut has the widest academic achievement gap on tests in the country between low-income students and their more affluent peers.
Mrs. Rell barely mentioned Race to the Top in public, except to appoint a panel of business leaders in March to make recommendations. Those recommendations aren't expected until the fall — too late, obviously, to make a difference in the federal application.
The state's General Assembly did take big steps forward in a school reform package that, among many other things, requires more and better data on schools, lifts enrollment caps on some charter schools and makes high school students take more math and science courses to graduate.
But the package still didn't go far enough to keep the state in the game.
Connecticut's legislation failed to give charter schools as much per-pupil aid as public schools get, for example. The state took a more cautious approach toward turning around underperforming schools than the Obama administration was looking for.
And now legislative leaders are saying they can't afford to make the changes they enacted.
It appears the Obama administration was right to pick up on the signals that Connecticut isn't serious about major reform.
The next governor has got to be more committed to reform — against all doubters and unconditionally — or Connecticut will continue its slide into educational mediocrity.
The state that once led the nation in test scores no longer does. Now it leads the nation in a shameful achievement gap. That terrible distinction won't go away until Connecticut puts its heart into making the education changes embraced by the Obama administration and a score of other states.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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