Could committed, competitive, and conditional funding streams for education find traction in Connecticut? Newly appointed Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor briefly outlined his idea for the three Cs at the latest ECS Task Force meeting on Nov. 3, while admitting that his idea would have to undergo lots of tweaking if it’s to go anywhere.
By “committed funding,” Pryor explained that he means funding of the formulaic variety, such as the ECS and other grants intended for equalizing resources across communities. “Competitive funding,” with its straightforward implication of serious grantsmanship falling on already understaffed school districts, would produce winners (presumably few) and losers (likely most), resulting in relatively short-term funding for projects determined to be the state priority du jour. His concept of “conditional funding” should be easy for fans of “Race to the Top” to grasp: awards would be contingent upon the grantee agreeing to do all the specified conditions set by the state.
Not missing a beat, Meriden Superintendent Mark Benigni followed up the Commissioner’s surprise suggestion with one of his own: Make it four Cs by adding “concerned funding” to accompany state concern and intervention in schools or districts where performance is lagging and to provide essential funding for those turnaround efforts.
Pryor glibly demurred to any fourth C, saying it had to remain three because there are only three Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ’rithmetic, the traditional foundation of an elementary education) as he teasingly played to remarks by former Education Commissioner Ted Sergi that paid tribute to Connecticut’s legendary earlier commissioners.
As it happens, Sergi evoked with appropriate awe the names of historically renowned 19th century education reformers Henry Barnard and Horace Mann. The enduring contributions of both great commissioners are marvelously recounted by Christopher Collier, Connecticut Historian Emeritus and award-winning author, in his tome Connecticut’s Public Schools: A History, 1650-2000 (Orange, CT: Clearwater Press, 2009). Writes Collier, Bernard’s “campaign to make workable and productive institutions out of Connecticut’s atrophied and decomposed schools” in the 1830s was instrumental in bringing about reliance on the property tax as the only then-available method of stable support for a state system of public schools, a battle that was similarly played out in other states across the nation, establishing the school finance principle that “the wealth of the State must educate the children of the State” (p. 56).
Despite the informality of the exchange within which the Commissioner Pryor’s trial balloon was proffered and the seeming levity with which it was received, those of us who are deeply concerned about Connecticut’s atrophying and decomposing schools of today simply cannot afford to treat even a whispered hint quite so blithely. Wondering how school leaders and other practitioners might react, I proceeded to test the waters unofficially. It’s Arnie Duncan lite, responded most, upon hearing the three C’s notion. It signals heightened private-sector influences and signals the official arrival of a free-market regime at the State Department of Education, according to several. It’s straight out of the charter school cabal playbook, claimed others. To be clear, none of their pronouncements were complimentary, regardless of the individual’s political party affinity. Instead, their views reflected a bitter after-taste from this past decade of a punitive, federally driven education policy, views quite in sync with those of Diane Ravitch described in this column last week.
Whoa! Lest the alarm be raised before the new commissioner is allowed to practice walking through the minefields of school finance reform, I will be among those looking with skeptical eyes and keen ears but also with a hopeful heart and open mind that maybe, just maybe, our young and amicable Commissioner will eventually become another famous American education reformer from Connecticut.
In the meantime, I have three initial suggestions for Commissioner Pryor. First, you might want to reconsider calling your scheme the three Cs. We don’t take kindly to being a “C” state. How about reframing it as the ABCs — funding for adequacy and equity, bold and innovative programs, and concerted improvement and turnaround?
Second, instead of playing the White House “we know what’s best” card, let districts/schools and their communities determine what bold and innovative programs or concerted improvement and turnaround efforts will work best for their unique circumstances. We’re not a state of cookie-cutter schools. Set broad parameters for these smaller grants, be tough about requiring documented progress, and hold grantees accountable for results, but let educators and their communities “own” the reforms from the get-go. And please limit grant proposals to 3-5 pages, requiring applicants to invest in professional evaluation (formative and summative) of funded projects, not in costly grant writers.
Third, make certain that all three funding streams, whatever they’re called, are sufficiently funded and fairly distributed. Were the ECS formula to be adequately and equitably funded, the need for the other two funding streams would be greatly diminished. Inasmuch as the ECS is the preeminent equalization mechanism for fulfilling the state’s constitutional obligation to fund the public schools, it is imperative that attention and resources first be focused on fulfilling that duty.
One final note from that same rather rambling ECS Task Force discussion. Several members spoke about the importance of early childhood education in preparing children for kindergarten, improving student outcomes, and closing the achievement gap. Even Ben Barnes, Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and Co-Chair of the Task Force, opined that school readiness is the low-hanging fruit that the state’s school finance policy needs to protect and ensure. Rather a stunning comment in light of the filing of a motion by the state to exclude preschool from the CCJEF v. Rell school finance lawsuit on the grounds that the education clause of the Connecticut constitution does not apply to children not yet enrolled in kindergarten and that therefore the state has no duty to provide them with adequate or equal educational opportunities.
Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding,plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.
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