State and local legislators lauded President Barack Obama for initiating a federal push for a major overhaul of public education during his State of the Union address last week, which may help address the state’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap.
Obama advocated funding universal high-quality preschool education, redesigning high school curriculums to emphasize science and math skills, and amending the Higher Education Act to improve college affordability. He also announced the implementation of “College Scorecards,” which grade schools based on the return on tuition paid, and praised German schools, whose high school degrees mirror U.S. technical degrees.
Democrats on both the state and national level voiced their support for most of the proposals, describing them as a worthy investment for a well-trained workforce and higher economic growth in the state. As the Connecticut General Assembly is controlled by Democrats, and the entire state congressional delegation is comprised of Democrats, the success of Obama’s education proposals in the state largely depends on their support.
“Early education resources are absolutely critical to every kind of occupational opportunity,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal told the News. “The best way to grow the economy is to provide skills and technical abilities that will fill jobs of the future.”
Blumenthal’s sentiment was echoed by other prominent Democrats, including Sen. Chris Murphy, whose spokesman Ben Marter said he offers broad support for all three of Obama’s proposals, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called early childhood investment a “critical need” in a press release responding to the President’s address. Democratic State Rep. Roland Lemar said the reforms would mitigate the lack of high-quality early education that ultimately ends up costing the state after students leave the public school system.
Republican State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and Republican State Senator Rob Kane could not be reached for comment.
Blumenthal said he hopes to push for more investment in existing Connecticut community colleges and technical high schools in order to build what he described as the “best-trained workforce in the world.” He said there are currently twice as many applicants for specialized technical high schools as there are places available.
“I travel around the state and talk to Connecticut business people who say that they have jobs open, but can’t find people with the right skills to fill them,” Blumenthal said.
While Lemar said that demand for vocational training should be filled, he disagreed with Obama’s proposal that it should be integrated universally into high school education as in the German public school system. But he said providing the option of vocational training in public education so that students possess the necessary skills to enter the workforce immediately after leaving high school is inherent to Obama’s State of the Union proposal to raise the federal minimum wage.
“Education reform does require extraordinary costs,” Lemar said. “But it would solve so many long-term issues. There is no greater public investment that we can make.”
Blumenthal, who served on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions during his first two years in Congress and investigated debt incurred by students at for-profit colleges, also lauded Obama’s efforts to improve college affordability so that graduates are not crippled with loans. Lemar cited the proliferation of students dropping out of school before graduation buried with loans they cannot pay off without a degree as a problem that he hopes reforms would solve.
But while state legislators commended the potential reforms, local advocacy groups expressed dissatisfaction with Obama’s proposal to continue federal funding allocations from Race to the Top, a state grant competition launched by Obama that encourages innovation in public school education. New Haven lost out on nearly $30 million in Race to the Top funds earlier this year after its funding application was not selected.
Dianne Kaplan deVries, project director for the New Haven-based advocacy group Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, said Race to the Top utilizes a modest amount of federal dollars to “foment competition and favored White House education policies nationwide,” while only a few states or school districts receive the grant and the dollars are never enough to fund the reforms fully.
In his address, Obama also heralded tax reform, more American manufacturing jobs, combatting climate change and a higher minimum wage.