As Election Day nears, the gubernatorial candidates have ratcheted up the rhetoric.
Democrat Ned Lamont calls Republican Bob Stefanowski’s plan to eliminate the income tax “pie in the sky,” Stefanowski equates Lamont’s strategies with Dannel Malloy’s “failed policies,” and independent Oz Griebel is happy to play the “radical middleman.”
As a teacher, I’m curious about each candidate’s stance on education. In particular, what do they say about Education Cost Sharing, teacher pensions, and charter schools? I reached out to all three candidates with questions. Lacey Rose, Ned Lamont’s communications director, provided Lamont’s responses to my questions. Kendall Marr, Bob Stefanowski’s communications director, indicated he would get back to me but never did. Nobody from Oz Griebel’s campaign ever responded. All information regarding Stefanowski and Griebel was gleaned from their websites and press reports.
Education Cost Sharing
The Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant was created in 1989 as the state’s “primary education equalization aid program,” comprising more than 50 percent of the state’s contributions to public schools. ECS has been criticized for its unfair implementation, even as the Supreme Court ruled in January that Connecticut’s application did not violate the state constitution.
Ned Lamont said, “The ECS formula exists to rectify the inequity of relying exclusively on local property wealth to fund public schools, but for the last two decades, it has been a leading casualty of the state’s fiscal and political crises. Legislators have tweaked the formula to serve political ends, and governors of both parties have starved it of funds by allowing a larger share of the budget to be eaten every year by nonfunctional spending on personnel costs and debt service.
“With everyone at the table,” added Lamont, “I will insist on a budget that fulfills the ECS formula’s promise instead of reducing it to just another vehicle for political horse-trading.”
Oz Griebel feels the state “must work with the legislature to rewrite the ECS formula. The achievement gap must be reduced — it is a civil rights issue, an economic issue, and a social justice issue.”
Bob Stefanowski, has not addressed the ECS directly, instead stating that “by cutting taxes and reducing the size of government, the economy would grow, more jobs and people would move to the state, and the ability to afford higher investments in schools would follow.”
The state funds its Teacher Retirement System (TRS) at 44.1 percent, a ratio ranking it fourth-worst nationally. Said Governor Malloy late last year: “Connecticut simply cannot afford annual payments of $4 to $6 billion into this fund.” Meantime, the state upped individual teacher contributions from 6 to 7 percent last year.
Griebel has stated that he is in favor of using the state lottery to help the pension funds of both the teachers and state employees, but is also “calling for putting less money into the pension fund than the actuarial guidelines recommend.”
Lamont has a similar idea, explaining, “Without a plan to fix it, the annual contribution to the teacher pension fund will go from one of the fastest-growing expenses to the largest single line item in the budget. That’s why I have a plan to assign the state lottery and other assets to the teacher pension fund, which would shore up its financing and allow us to move beyond the fiscal straightjacket imposed by the 2008 bond covenant.”
Stefanowski has made no public statements regarding the TRS, but he’s clearly no fan of public unions like the Connecticut Education Association. In addition to vowing to reopen the state employees’ contract, the Madison businessman was ecstatic when the Supreme Court ruled this summer in Janus v. AFSCME that “nonunion workers cannot be forced to pay fees to public sector unions.”
“Thank God for the Janus decision,” said Stefanowski. “The nice part about it is it gives us a lot more power with the union. It takes them out right at the knees. When I saw that decision come through, I was clicking my heels three times.”
The state Board of Education gave initial approval two weeks ago to two new charter schools in Norwalk and Danbury, earmarking public dollars to the tune of $11,250 per student for each charter.
Ned Lamont does not reject charter schools outright, but he does “reject the internecine fighting between champions of traditional public schools and proponents of charter schools, with louder forces in both camps insisting that lines be drawn and sides be taken.” Even so, he added, “I will always have my door open to classroom teachers and public school leaders to hear what the state needs to do to provide an excellent public education to all of our children — and I am and will always remain a strong supporter of Connecticut’s traditional public schools.”
Griebel, conversely, supports the “adequate and equitable funding of charter schools, especially in our larger cities, to provide greater choice for parents and students.”
Stefanowski is noncommittal: “If elected, Mr. Stefanowski will carefully examine that proposal and make sure it’s in the best educational interests of the state and, if so, he will approve it,” said Stefanowski spokesman Kendall Marr. “There is certainly reason to believe that charters are having positive results, but he is also a product of the public schools.”
So what to make of all this? Lamont and Griebel provide the most concrete details regarding education, while Stefanowski offers the least. No surprise there. While Stefanowski consistently pushes his shiny but imprecise end-the-income-tax strategy, Lamont and Griebel are more in line, respectively, with traditional Democrat and Republican education platforms — even as Griebel says he comes from “the radical middle.”
In the end, none of the candidates is likely to win or lose based on his education platform. Last week’s Quinnipiac poll found education fourth on the list of voter priorities behind the economy, taxes, and spending. But public education is inextricably tied to each of these issues, so whoever becomes the next governor will undoubtedly have a fundamental, if indirect, impact on Connecticut’s schools.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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