Last fall, I sat in the auditorium of New Haven’s Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School as Mayor John Destefano Jr. took the stage alongside New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, representatives from the U.S. Department of Education and legislators and educators from across the state. This unlikely coalition assembled to announce a ground-breaking contract agreement with New Haven’s teachers, which embraced collaboration, acknowledged the need for change and approved common-sense reforms.
Three months later, New Haven is beginning to implement changes that can deliver better schools for New Haven students. By March 15, two failing schools will be selected for comprehensive overhauls. Recommendations for a sensible (but fair) process for dismissing tenured teachers who fail to provide adequate instruction to their students are due on April 15. As part of the teacher contract, student performance will, for the first time, be a part of the teacher evaluation process. To be sure, much is still to be decided about how to fairly evaluate schools, teachers and administrators but, so far, the city and its teachers seem committed to a strict timetable for reform.
Looking beyond New Haven, however, Connecticut’s educational landscape is puzzling and a bit disheartening. Though the state remains the wealthiest in the union in terms of income per capita, Connecticut is home to the country’s largest achievement gap between wealthy students and their poorer counterparts. Connecticut’s urban school districts like New Haven’s and Bridgeport’s have continually struggled with high dropout rates and poor student performance.
Worse, at a time when education seems to be a prerogative in Washington, Connecticut has done relatively little to obtain federal funds to revamp its schools. Governors in other states have made substantive education reform a priority in response to Obama’s Race to the Top Initiative, a program that offers grants — up to $175 million in Connecticut’s case, $10 million of which could go to New Haven — to incentivize school reform. But Connecticut’s own M. Jodi Rell (who has shown, shall we say, a lack of initiative in the past) has been all but invisible on the issue. In her State of the State speech on Wednesday, she failed to even mention schools in her outline of goals for the year.
Meanwhile, though Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan managed to submit an education for the first round of Race to the Top grants, few expect Connecticut to be among the first beneficiaries of the program. The state simply has not done enough to show that it is serious about reform.
That said, Connecticut will have a second chance to apply for a Race to the Top grant this June. Rell’s speech, though uninspiring, opened a new legislative session in Hartford. In the coming weeks and months, members of the Connecticut House of Representatives and the State Senate will have the chance to respond to the Obama administration’s call to take education reform seriously. The State Board of Education has already recommended that the legislature remove the cap on charter school expansion and improve funding to those schools. These are important steps — especially as they allow state to meet one of the funding priorities set by the Department of Education — and I hope that the legislature will take them.
At the same time, I hope that Connecticut will take a second glance at New Haven, which modelled its program to match the priorities of the current administration, and consider the need to act decisively in the best interests of its students.
Michael Gocksch is a sophomore in Trumbull College and the lobbying coordinator of the Yale College Democrats.