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Competitive Funding for Connecticut?

CT Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the ECS Task Force, "If we use the power of the purse strings then we can make progress."

Connecticut’s new commissioner of education is suggesting that Connecticut look to the precedent set by the federal government with Race to the Top and consider an education funding model that incorporates competitive grants.  “If we use the power of the purse strings then we can make progress,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told members of the state’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) Task Force at a meeting yesterday. “The barrier to achievement is a lack of political will at the local level. The right steps are not being taken.”

Pryor’s comments came in the wake of a presentation to the State Board of Education on Wednesday in which he decried the state’s lack of progress on the NAEP assessment.

Task Force Co-Chair Ben Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said the competitive Race to the Top model is one that the Task Force should consider. “I’m giving it serious consideration personally,” he said.

Barnes suggested that the current necessity to respond to educational need in local districts may be bigger than the traditional school funding approach that also has addressed communities’ ability to pay and their tax bases. “There are many situations compelling local educational authorities to rethink their traditional approach in whole or in part — there are times you’ve got to push that refresh button,” he said.

The ECS Task Force is holding regular meetings to develop recommendations on possible ways to change how money is divided among school districts.

Competitive funding was one of the “three Cs” Pryor introduced to the task force.  The others were committed funding — “formulaic funding that will help to remedy the imperfections in the existing funding formula” — and conditional funding.

Mark Benigni, superintendent of Meriden Public Schools and a Task Force member, pointed out the negatives of competitive funding. “Our kids lost out on competitive grant programs. Why would we want anything that creates winners and losers? There’s enough figures available showing where the money needs to go.”

Benigni added that “concern dollars” might be a better C to include, as that type of funding is what has enabled Meriden schools to head in the right direction. “The changes we made couldn’t have happened without the state and municipality working together,” he said. “We shouldn’t follow a model that pits winner against losers when we already know who the winners and losers are.”

CEA Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine, a Task Force member, agreed that Race to the Top calls to mind a model where “the losers are usually the people who need it the most.”

Collaboration, rather than competition, should be the essential element. Loftus Levine said that CALI — the Connecticut Accountability for Learning Initiative — before it experienced staffing and funding cuts, was an example of an intervention model that really worked. “Teachers really bought into that model and welcomed assistance from outside experts sent by the state,” she said.

Loftus Levine also pointed to the complexity and enormity of the problems the Task Force is trying to address through education alone. She said the Task Force should be looking at successful places like Syracuse and Harlem, which are not asking schools to bear the entire responsibility of closing the achievement gap.

Inequalities are growing between poor children and those who are better off. Loftus Levine pointed to data that show that before the age  of six, children from higher income families spend 1,300 more hours in “novel” places, (places other than home, school, family care or daycare,) than their lower-income peers. “We can’t just look at what we do from roughly 7:30-3:30,” she said.

Benigni agreed, saying, “if this group is trying to address the achievement gap through education alone, we’re simplifying the problem ten-fold.”

The ECS Task Force will hold its next meeting December 1. At that meeting members plan to hear about data issues from David LeVasseur, director of municipal finance services at the Office of Policy and Management; Kevin Sullivan, commissioner of the Department of Revenue Services, and Orlando Rodriguez, demographer and senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children.

For more information on the ECS Task Force visit the task force’s website.

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