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State in 'race' for federal education aid

Just one more example of how states will do whatever corporate-politico honchos want to get RTTT money.

Mark K. McQuillan: EdD. Harvard

By Linda Conner Lambeck

HARTFORD -- It's a race and state Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan is scrambling to win.

The prize, potentially as much as a $175 million slice of the federal $4.35 billion Race to the Top education grant, spread out over four years.

If the state wins its share, McQuillan said he can, despite a recession, advance an agenda of improving public schools in general and high schools in particular. He would use the money to assign better-trained teachers in urban classrooms and focus on narrowing a wide achievement gap between white and minority students among the largest in the nation.

"It's a very important opportunity to move forward on a series of initiatives we've started in the state," said McQuillan. "We need to enlist as many school districts that can do the work as possible."

If Connecticut wins the grant, estimated between $60 million and $175 million, half would be used for statewide improvement projects. The other half would be divvied up between school districts that adopt an educational reform plan the state Department of Education will soon propose. The state's 20 neediest communities, assuming they sign on to the reform plan, would be entitled to the largest share of aid.

Bridgeport could be in line for about $10 million. Supt. of Schools John Ramos said it is likely the city will sign the state's memorandum of understanding by the Jan. 11 deadline.

Given a choice, Ramos would use the new money to expand the number of schools working with the University of Connecticut's CommPACT school reform initiative. Two of the city's elementary schools, Barnum and Longfellow, already do. He'd also like to expand a behavior-modification program helping local schools cut down on suspensions.

But it appears there won't be much choice in how federal Race to the Top funds are spent. Districts that sign on will commit to spend the money on projects the state is still in the process of designing.

"It really is a race," said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "We've been really hustling to get this thing together."

The competitive grant was announced by President Barack Obama in July and outlined in August by federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But applications detailing the grant program were not distributed until November. States have until Feb. 8 to apply for the first round of federal grants.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said no one knows how many states will be allocated some of the money in the first round.

"Anybody who tells you they have a sense is speaking out of turn," said Hess. "It's possible (the federal Department of Education) has made the decisions internally, but I think they're still trying to sort it out and that part of it will depend on the quality of the initial round" of applicants.

While no small chunk of change, the grant would be less than the $780 million in federal stimulus money awarded to the state for education in 2009. Connecticut also gets $240 million annually from Washington for special education and programs to improve student achievement.

It's expected between a dozen and 30 states will submit bids for first-round funding. Some believe the first round will be to one or more states in each of five size categories. That would lump Connecticut in the same mix as 15 other states, including Kansas, Minnesota and Colorado.

Over the past four years, McQuillan said, the state has built a powerful model to help school districts like Bridgeport improve students' performance. Reform efforts have included upgrading math and reading instruction and using test data to modify and individualize how students are taught.

Still, state students' scores on SATs and other standardized tests at the high school level remain flat. Scoring gaps between white and minority students aren't closing quickly. Dropout rates remain high and the number of high school graduates needing remedial course work once they enter college is growing.

The General Assembly in 2009 failed to adopt McQuillan's secondary school reform model, not because legislators didn't think it was needed, but because of its cost, according to the commissioner.

McQuillan hopes that Race to the Top money will help districts adopt longer school days, offer more teacher training -- particularly in the areas of math and science -- and help districts use educational technology in a more productive way. Districts will also be asked to adopt a new teacher-evaluation program.

"It brings a lot of our initiatives together," added Murphy. "Our board made it clear our application should reflect what Connecticut is doing already. That Race to the Top funds should be brought here on our own terms."

Yet, to qualify, the state has to loosen its charter school law. The state Board of Education paved the way for charter school expansion last month.

— Linda Conner Lambeck


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