Malloy calls for expanded education funding

In his latest biennial budget proposal unveiled last week, Gov. Dannel Malloy is asking the State Legislature to approve a spending increase to fund the hallmark programs in an education package it passed last May.

Even as Malloy calls for $1.8 billion in spending cuts from the state’s total budget over the next two years, he has included over $159 million in increased funding for education programs. These funds would send more money to low-performing schools and continue a pilot program to roll out a teacher evaluation system. Under Malloy’s proposal, the money will be diverted from other state programs including the Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILOT, designed to pay cities property taxes they do not collect on nonprofit property owners such as universities, and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund, a state fund distributed across 169 municipalities.

“The governor has been clear that his priorities are jobs and education,” said Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary for legislative affairs in the Office of Management and Budget. “The governor said in his budget address of investments in education, ‘It is a moral obligation that we provide Connecticut’s kids a high-quality education, but it’s also in our economic interest.’”

One of the largest programs to see a proposed funding increase is the Commissioner’s Network, which identifies the state’s worst-performing schools and implements some form of change to “turn them around,” said Robert Cotto, senior policy fellow for K-12 education at Connecticut Voices for Children. Cotto said these changes can include replacing a principal, firing staff or bringing in a local university to help run the school. Once a school is accepted into the Commissioner’s Network, Cotto explained, it is re-evaluated annually to assess whether the changes have had an effect on performance.

So far, the state’s education package from last May has authorized the Commissioner’s Network to “turn around” four schools. In a sign of his commitment to the program, Malloy has proposed increasing the network’s funding by $14 million to support eight more schools.

Many of the other programs Malloy has pushed to fund are smaller than the Commissioner’s Network, but still reflect his administration’s education reform priorities. He has included just under $10 million to fund four new state charter schools in the next two years. Additionally, he has suggested allocating $12 million to the implementation of a common core curriculum system that would set new math and literacy goals for students to put them on par with the rest of the nation. Lastly, Malloy proposed sending increased funding to 117 of the state’s poorest towns to combat an education achievement gap that was ranked the worst in the nation last year according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But the centerpiece of the governor’s education package last year — a new statewide teacher evaluation system — will not see any new funding this year. Cotto said that after piloting the program in several schools across the state this year, evaluators determined that the system needed further testing before the state expanded it to all schools.

Some school districts, like Hartford and New Haven, have already implemented an evaluation system and will not be affected by the new pilot program. Eric Excell-Bailey, communications director for the American Federation of Teachers in Connecticut, said that for those school districts without teacher evaluation systems, now is the time to begin testing them.

“It’s scary for anybody, and we recognize that,” Excell-Bailey said, but “sometimes you have to push forward because it’s only when you make those changes that you can find ways to make things better.”

He added that the teacher’s union worked to make the evaluation process fair. For example, the union has tried to mitigate the influence that standardized tests will have on the evaluation process — standardized tests will compromise only about 22.5 percent of the evaluation.

While many of the state’s previous education programs concentrated on fixing schools in need, New Haven mayoral candidate and State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said that he would like to increase support for resources and initiatives for preventing school problems altogether. Holder-Winfield said early childhood education can help ensure that schools and students do not “fail.” He also suggested placing social workers in schools to help students tackle behavioral problems that originate outside the classroom but can be the leading cause of academic struggles.

“My primary focus is on what happens before the school fails,” Holder-Winfield said. “Because once the building has failed, all the kids inside have already failed.”

According to Excell-Bailey, it will take another two to three years for the teacher evaluation system to be implemented across the state.

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