A group of business leaders, who formed a non-profit to help eliminate Connecticut’s highest-in-the-nation achievement gap, said there are several steps the legislature can take this year to lower the gap over the next decade.
The Connecticut Council for Education Reform’s proposal is just one of a handful of education reform proposals put forth this year as the legislature prepares for a session focused on changes to the education system.
Some of the topics being explored by all of the groups or committees include teacher evaluations and tenure and the state’s funding structure for public education.
“We believe there needs to be more transparency in how we spend our money for education,” Steven Simmons, vice chairman of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, said Thursday at a Capitol press conference.
He said creating a chart of common accounts would show how school districts are spending their money district-wide and on a school-by-school basis to “channel resources more effectively.”
“Connecticut currently has no way to track whether education dollars are being spent effectively or efficiently,” a report put together by the council says. “There are currently several broad categories for reporting which can lead to different classifications between districts.”
More transparency in education funding doesn’t necessarily mean the state needs to spend more in order to improve student achievement.
Ramani Ayer, retired CEO of The Hartford and one of the 13 members of the council’s board, said a substantial amount of their recommendations do not require major fiscal adjustments.
“Even today Connecticut is at the upper end of how much it spends per pupil,” Ayer said. “It is not as though Connecticut is under spending in the area of education, we are close to $14,500 per pupil.”
He said what the council has noticed is that in the state’s education expenditures today close to $600 million in categorical grants “without a proper assessment of whether these grants are working.”
He said there are also about $2.5 billion in “non-instructional” dollars in the system. Even a 5 to 10 percent savings in that line item will finance a lot of investments focused more on student achievement.
“A lot of businesses go through this zero-based evaluation and I don’t see why we shouldn’t do that in the education system in Connecticut,” Ayer said acknowledging it will take great willpower to fundamentally assess whether the state is expending the dollars in the right area.
Simmons said some of the recommendations like funding more pre-school slots will require the state to spend additional sums of money.
“We wouldn’t do it all tomorrow, we’d phase it in over four or five years,” Simmons said.
But Simmons said it’s about more than just money.
“On a moral basis we can’t live in a state, as the commissioner said, which is one of the wealthiest in the nation and sit by and let so many of our young people go to schools that they don’t leave with the skills necessary to succeed in life,” Simmons said.
He said as business leaders the council, which includes the heads of Yale University , The Travelers, and United Illuminating, is interested in eliminating the achievement gap because it’s important to businesses to have a skilled workforce.
“We are one of the worst states in the nation over the last 20 years in job growth,” Simmons said. “One of the key things businesses look for are skilled workers. We need to graduate students from our high schools who can be skilled workers.”
He said it’s also good for the state’s budget because over the course of a lifetime someone who is educated will be paying more taxes than someone who
“Forty percent of low-income students do not graduate high school, only 14 percent of non low-income students don‘t graduate,” Simmons said.
He said those who don’t graduate tend to be incarcerated at three times the rate as those who do graduate. They also tend to be unemployed and over the course of a lifetime these students contribute less, or cost the state more to the tune of about $500,000 per student.
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who attended the press conference, said the council’s priorities correlate closely with the governor’s six principles of education reform.
“The remarkable thing we ought to recognize is right in this room a few weeks ago the CEA held a press conference and talked about many of the same themes,” Pryor said. “It even made recommendations that in some instances were quite close in their objective and in their content.”
He said he knows there are times the various special interests will disagree, but “let’s also acknowledge that we’re already proving that we can agree enough that we can move forward substantially.”