What a terrific beginning to the new year — Governor Dannel P. Malloy proclaiming on WNPR’s Where We Live that quality public education is “an issue of civil rights, of human rights”!  Not only does he intend that 2012 be the Year of Education, but also that his planned reforms will be “the most far-reaching in our state’s history.” 

At long last it appears that we have a governor who has vowed to offer up something more substantive and transformative than the tired and hollow “all children can learn” pronouncements of the past. 

To fulfill his bold and immensely welcome promises, however, the Governor will need to adequately and equitably fix and fund the state’s broken school finance system that has all but devastated our urban schools, jeopardized middle-class and high-wealth communities’ abilities to sustain even their current levels of school quality, and perpetuated the most egregious achievement gaps in the nation.  That’s a fix that should not be hastily undertaken during this year’s short legislative session. 

CCSU Kickoff

Last Thursday, on the anniversary of Governor Malloy’s first year in office, a forum at Central Connecticut State University became the opening salvo to the Year of Education. That event continues to create a healthy buzz, and here’s my two-cents’ worth. Not surprisingly, my chief interests were in the opening remarks by Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor and the late afternoon panel session on school finance.  During both, the Commissioner’s proposal to fund reforms along the lines of his “three Cs” — committed, competitive, and conditional grants — was strongly promoted.  The latter two grants supposedly could somehow be incorporated into the Education Cost Sharing formula (that’s the “committed” funding) or, more appropriately, be funded separately as categorical grants.  Categorical grants, of course, diminish the overall pot of funding that could otherwise be invested in the ECS, which is the state’s main aid mechanism for supporting school district operating budgets and equalizing communities’ ability to support their own schools, whereas categorical funding allows the state to more directly target how money will be used because these smaller grants carry many more “strings” than the ECS. 

If the state wants to establish grants that would enable districts to pilot new approaches, hurray! But inasmuch the state’s priority ought to be revamping and fully funding the ECS, any diversion of monies into new grants raises lots of questions.  Until the Governor’s budget proposal is released on February 8, we can only speculate on the possible size of the new grants and their impact on the bread-and-butter ECS, where else the revenues might come from (since the Governor has said he is not going to raise taxes), and what kinds of strings will be attached to the new funding.

What hopefully will be avoided is the White House “we know what’s best” syndrome that brought us the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top — i.e., overly prescriptive “reform” strategies that have no research-based justification whatsoever and are one-size-fits-all directives upon which funding is contingent.  As I opined via pre-recorded tape on NPR’s “Where We Live” show with Commissioner Pryor, a Connecticut version of Race to the Top, with its few winners and many losers, is a deplorable idea that invites state micromanagement of schools and could enable it to hold fiscally distraught and historically underfunded school districts hostage to the latest “reformy” fads, signing on to unwanted changes that are inappropriate and unworkable within the unique contexts of their communities. When fiscal distress is so extreme that districts have no alternative but to embark upon the “innovation of the day” just to close their budget gaps and keep their schoolhouse doors open, in my view that constitutes an inappropriate use of the state’s otherwise useful bully pulpit for improving the schools. Oy, the fast-fading myth of local control! 

Reallocation of Resources?

Amidst the Thursday event came leaked word (a trial balloon?) that the Governor intends to divert state aid from wealthy districts and pass it on to 25-30 of the highest-need/lowest-performing districts.  Robbing Peter to pay Paul is certainly not education finance reform, and it may not even be constitutional.  At best, such an inequitable proposal would be politically divisible in the extreme and almost certainly DOA at the legislature.

In today’s dollars, the 45 highest-wealth communities still receive less ECS aid per pupil than they did pre-Horton v. Meskill (1977).  Were 100 percent of ECS funding now going to these districts be “repurposed” as turnaround funding for the highest-need/lowest-performing districts, those funds would still be insufficient for producing the kinds of dramatic gains in student achievement that those struggling districts need.  Keep in mind that the most effective research-supported reform strategies — universal preschool, all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, embedded professional development for teachers and administrators, a longer school day and year, to name just the high-ticket ones — are extraordinarily costly.  To produce significant turnaround in just the 15 Priority School Districts would surely require some combination, if not most or all, of these high-cost interventions in addition to other investments.  (By the way, the 2005 education adequacy cost study calculations account for all these and other such needed interventions.)

The notion of any “reallocation of resources” is already causing angst, both within high-wealth communities that fear the loss of their small ECS grants and in most every school district, given that they’re now smack in the middle of FY13 budget preparations.  Nevertheless, Governor Malloy has reiterated his promise to hold municipalities harmless (i.e., not cut their funding) in 2012.  But what does this portend for 2013?  As Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee commented earlier Thursday, it is certainly possible “to set up a system where you can hold all municipalities harmless, while increasing funding to several school systems.”  He went on to note that this can be accomplished without the necessity of making hasty major changes to the ECS during the 2012 legislative session.  All it takes is available funding. 

The resource issues bring to the fore a need for honest deliberation by state policymakers and experienced educators about reasonable, realistic, and locally adaptable approaches for school and district turnaround.  Top-down mandates and forcible state interventions may appear to be expedient solutions, but despite the bravado of takeovers and in-your-face interventions that typically garner national headlines, such approaches too often prove to be the least successful route to meaningful improvements.  Moreover, turnaround planning and expectations for improved student outcomes need to be commensurate with the level of targeted funding and other resources (including human) being devoted to the effort, as well as the implementation timespan over which the change efforts will be evaluated.  Expecting dramatic turnaround from the state’s investment in small, short-term grants is unrealistic. 

More on the CCSU Kickoff

Funny thing about us educators — we expect “workshops” actually to involve work by the participants in the form of active participation, deliberation, constructive dialog, exploration of varied opinions and ideas, and usually also a set of group-developed work products, or “takeaways” that can later be built upon and shared back home.  But at last Thursday’s “Education Workshop,” the 350 or so of us in attendance were largely just “talked to,” with maybe two or three individuals allowed to ask quick questions at the end of each session.  Unfortunately, that was a lost opportunity to begin building consensus for reforms and help carry forward momentum to our respective constituents, given the vast experience and knowledge of those sitting there in CCSU’s Alumni Hall. 

Silenced by organizers’ selection of panel presenters were representatives of parents, school boards, early childhood experts, children’s rights advocacy organizations, and municipalities — all vital stakeholders and catalysts for education reform.  Equally silenced was CCJEF, whose continuing litigation to achieve adequate and equitable school funding for all has already resulted in a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision that essentially says that under the Connecticut constitution, all public school children are entitled to a quality education and the state must pay for it.  As Branford Board of Education Chair Frank Carrano put it, that court decision was the elephant in the room.

There were also two other muted elephants in the room last Thursday — the ravages of poverty and its cancerous impact on student learning, and the fiscal distress of municipalities and the inequitable and unsustainable burden they carry for funding public education.  Commented Jim Finley, Executive Director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, “Connecticut is already the most reliant state in the nation on property taxes to fund PK-12 public education, with the current ECS formula being underfunded by some $800 million — and the gap between current funding levels and the resources that are truly required to provide equal educational opportunity for all public school children so that they are able to achieve state goals in reading and math could be as much as $2 billion.”

Yet what was heard wasn’t uninteresting, even if some of the choices for presenters seemed questionable.  For example, Rhode Island’s new school finance formula has already received more than enough attention by the ECS Task Force, and quite frankly, that model would be more disastrous for Connecticut schools than our present ECS formula.  It both provides exceedingly inadequate funding and distributes it inequitably, fails to include any student need weighting for English-language learners or special education students, and its base figure (our “foundation level”) purposely excludes the cost of textbooks and instructional supplies, technology, custodial services, maintenance of buildings and grounds, and transportation.  And it’s already being challenged in a lawsuit similar to that of CCJEF v. Rell. 

Another questionable choice was bringing in charter school people to talk about their New Orleans work. What has transpired with New Orleans education is viewed by some as an example of “disaster capitalism,” a coup that opportunistically utilized one of this nation’s most tragic environmental disasters and the attendant massive social upheaval to essentially replace the hugely underfunded and long failing public school system with a privately run charter system.  The research is still out on whether all that “recovery” has produced any notable academic improvements or whether the reshuffling and resorting of kids, in which the most difficult to serve English-language learners and handicapped students have been left behind for the diminished public school system to educate, is to be avoided in such future catastrophic situations. Yet perhaps somewhere in the midst of the troubling New Orleans saga there are a few pertinent lessons for Connecticut to hear about.  But why wasn’t Paul Vallas, the former New Orleans schools chief who now serves as Interim Superintendent in Bridgeport, asked to make that presentation?

Whether the workshop marked an auspicious beginning for the Year of Education depends on whom you ask. What is more important is that a reasonably well-orchestrated initial gesture was made by this Governor to bring together an audience of 350 prominent educators, legislators, and others.  Our presence there didn’t signal agreement with panelists or carte blanche approval of the day’s messages.  Instead, we were there to symbolically stand up for children and attest to our determination to help transform teaching and learning in Connecticut’s schools because it’s our professional responsibility and moral imperative to do so.  Like our governor, we believe it’s a matter of defending children’s civil rights and ensuring our collective future through high-quality education for all.  Individually and collectively, we seek to close the unconscionable student achievement gaps based on race, wealth, and geography, and in the process, reestablish the state’s previously deserved best-schools-in-the-nation reputation.  The CCSU kickoff afforded a unique opportunity to network among others from across the state, have another close-up look at the new Commissioner of Education, and hear calls to action from both our Governor and Lieutenant Governor.  Let’s hope there’s a round #2 and beyond very soon.

Vacation Is Over

Now that 2012 has arrived, my regular school finance op-eds will resume.  Let me remind readers that the opinions expressed above and in every CT News Junkie column are solely mine.  They are not being made on behalf of the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), the broad-based school finance coalition that I founded in 2004 and have continued to consult with and lead on a part-time basis as project director.  My op-ed columns will continue to press for adequate and equitable funding that provides every district and school with the resources necessary for all children to attain a quality education commensurate with the high expectations of parents and communities and the 21st century social and economic needs of this state and nation.  Indeed, that is also a focus reflected in CCJEF’s mission, and it has been the guiding principle driving my involvements in this state’s school finance reform struggles since the earliest days of Johnson v. Rowland (1998-03). 

Marking this Year of Education, many CCJEF member entities will be issuing their own broad set of school reform recommendations and legislative proposals, such as the thoughtfully conceived works recently released by the Connecticut Association for Public School Superintendents (CAPSS)and Connecticut Education Association (CEA).  Some of those recommendations and legislative proposals that will be submitted may not closely align with positions adopted by CCJEF and/or with my own school finance reform views expressed in this column.  Such is the nature of any large and loosely coupled membership organization.  However, the diversity of policy, practices, and opinion across CCJEF’s school districts, municipalities, professional associations, unions, parents, and other individual members all stops at the door of our common mission:  to reform the fiscal infrastructure of public schooling in Connecticut to ensure equal educational opportunity for all children. 

Happy New Year, readers!  Let’s work to ensure that the voices of us all will be heard and used to inform and support Governor Malloy and Commissioner Pryor, so that this Year of Education can be owned and celebrated by us all.   

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.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.