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Key Reform Efforts Critical to State’s Revised RTTT Application

Connecticut’s twice-delayed in-school suspension law and the State Department of Education’s (SDE) proposed secondary school reform plan are both important links to the state’s success in its second Race to the Top (RTTT) federal grant application due June 1.

Addressing members of  the General Assembly’s Education Committee during an information forum on the state’s RTTT grant application process held April 16, State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said Connecticut needs RTTT funds to help build “a bold support system of emotional and academic support” for students.

“Secondary reform plan is an essential building block to the state’s reform strategy and the in-school suspension law is key to keeping kids in school so they can continue to learn and graduate,” said McQuillan.

With the regular legislative session scheduled to adjourn on May 5, lawmakers have about two weeks left to cobble together and pass an omnibus bill that would address issues for Connecticut’s revised RTTT application.  “RTTT is a one-time opportunity – the legislature must act now,” said the commissioner.

McQuillan and representatives from several education stakeholder groups – including CEA Executive Director John Yrchik – have met regularly with State Senator Thomas Gaffey and State Representative Andrew Fleishmann, co-chairs of the Education Committee, in a series of RTTT “education summits.”

The summits began shortly after Connecticut learned in March that it was not a finalist in the first RTTT application round. Discussions have focused on what stakeholders think is best for the state to incorporate into the revised application. The informational forum was an opportunity to update the Education Committee and help bolster legislative support for issues related to the RTTT application.

Stakeholder buy-in essential

CEA Executive Director John Yrchik told the committee that having all stakeholders sitting at the table to discuss education issues is not only important to the future of children and public education, but it is also “a fundamental factor” in the success of Connecticut’s second RTTT application. He said collaboration on the RTTT application is given more importance than any other section.

“There are lots of reform issues being discussed for Connecticut, and even if they are all passed by the General Assembly, we could still lose points without stakeholder buy-in,” Yrchik said. He added that Connecticut lost 150 points on the first application because it didn’t have sufficient stakeholder buy-in.

“Without everyone in agreement on this application, success is fairly minimal. It takes everyone working together to bring about reform,” he said.

Yrchik also cautioned legislators to be careful in approving any statute changes for the competitive RTTT application. “The federal government did not set forth criteria for states to aspire to with this application process. Instead they set up a competition – and unfortunately this means many states with good and credible plans will not get their applications funded. Whether or not our application is accepted, we will have to live with any changes that are made, it’s important any changes represent good policy.”

High school reform plan ‘vital’ to RTTT grant

MQuillan said the state’s comprehensive high school reform plan – launched two and a half years ago – is “vital” to the RTTT application. The plan – which has been approved by both the Education and Appropriations committees – would establish more rigorous high school graduation requirements. Among other goals, it would increase high school course and credit requirements, raise student accountability and assessment standards, and include a model curricula for districts.

The commissioner said the plan dovetails with the state’s need to more closely link K-12 and higher education requirements because of the proposed national common core of standards for college and career readiness that the State Board of Education is expected to adopt.

He told the committee the reform plan builds on a long-range vision for Connecticut’s education future. “If the state doesn’t move forward with secondary school reform funding and tries to fund it only with RTTT money, it would put the state at a disadvantage with our revised application. The federal government would see that as not having a strong commitment to education reform,” he said.

He added that the “frightening reality” is that without state funds, the plan would “stop dead in its tracks” and the state would lose ground. “The plan is not a cost-free program for the state. RTTT funding would only get the plan started and under way, not sustain it.”

In-school suspension law critical to reform goals

McQuillan – along with several superintendents and principals from around the state – said the state’s new in-school suspension law – scheduled to go into effect July 1 – is also critical to the state’s education reform goals and the RTTT application.

The commissioner said students who are frequently suspended from high school “are prime candidates” to drop out of school and enter the workforce without the skills they need to succeed. He said strong in-school suspension programs can provide students and their families with the academic and emotional help they need to successfully move through middle and high school.

The law has been delayed twice since it was passed in 2007, but the Education Committee recently voted not to support a third postponement. A number of districts have not waited for the law to become effective, implementing in-school suspension policies as part of efforts to reduce overall student suspensions.

“When someone knows a teacher cares, there will be fewer discipline problems,” Stafford Springs Superintendent Therese Fishman told the committee. She said the district’s high school in-school suspension program includes a Saturday session and assigns paraprofessionals and substitute teachers to work with suspended students. “It should be a learning experience. We want to make sure students keep learning.”

Fishman added that she wants to hire a full-time teacher for the in-school suspension room and use the teacher as a long-term substitute when there are no student suspensions. “In-school suspensions for low-risk students cost more money, but our goal is to keep kids in school.”

East Hartford High School Assistant Principal Michelle Marion said the school has a designated in-school suspension program where students are assigned to a room and are expected to focus on academic assignments provided by their teachers.

The program is partly funded by a grant, but she said staff dealing with student behavioral programs need more professional development training programs. However, she said her district can’t afford the $60,000 cost.

While the committee voted against postponing the in-school suspension law, a number of legislators on the committee said the reality is that not all districts can develop in-school suspension programs in difficult economic times because of budget cuts.

However, Joseph Cirasulo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, told the committee that superintendents don’t want another delay for the law. “Let’s put it into the mix and get it done,” he said, adding that in-school suspension programs should have a higher funding priority than some other programs.

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