Published Online: March 1, 2010

Conn. Lawmakers May Beef Up Race to Top Plan

Connecticut lawmakers are considering ways to fortify the state's application for millions of dollars in education funding under the president's "Race to the Top" initiative, concerned the state won't receive funding in the first round.

The co-chairmen of the General Assembly's Education Committee said they expect to offer legislation in the coming weeks that, among other things, would expand student access to charter schools and school choice programs, and create alternative routes to certification for administrators — all to improve the state's chances of matching the federal initiative's goals.

The state Department of Education submitted its application about a month ago, a four-year, $192 million plan to improve public school standards, instruction, teaching, and turn around lowest performing school districts. But of the 40 states participating, it's estimated that only about 10 or so could initially be awarded funding.

"We've got a reasonably good application for the first round, but given the numbers, I'm not terribly optimistic about whether we'll win in round one," said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford.

"I expect that we will be passing legislation this spring that does further our alignment with the reform goals of Race to the Top," he added.

Finalists are expected to be announced in early to mid-March. Connecticut then has until June 2 to apply for funding under the second round. There may also be a third round of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative.

While the state's application has not yet been rejected, it has already garnered criticism, especially from advocates of charter schools — typically publicly funded, small schools that are managed by governing boards of teachers, parents and community members.

Last week, ConnCAN, a charter school advocacy group, accused the state of leaving 120 blanks in its application. The group's CEO Alex Johnston said it was the equivalent to a college applicant "submitting a transcript full of incompletes" and that it was unlikely Connecticut will win money in the first round.

State Education Department spokesman Tom Murphy said blanks in the application were for questions having to do with baseline data which the state does not have. Murphy said federal education officials told the state to leave the questions blank and not make up data if they did not have it.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., recently told The Day of New London's editorial board he didn't believe Connecticut would receive funding the first round, criticizing the application as "kind of cobbled together pretty last-minute."

Murphy said the state, which received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help prepare the application, believes it is very strong. He said various groups were involved, including school principals, teachers, unions, school boards, college deans and members of the business community.

"We have a very strong application, but are we a lock for first round funding? No, we don't know that," he said.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, has been the focus of some criticism surrounding the massive application. Both Fleischmann and committee co-chairman, Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, accused Rell of not playing an active role in attempting to secure the federal funding.

"I think we need this administration to get behind the Round Two of the application. I think Round One is pretty much a dress rehearsal, so to speak," Gaffey said.

"We need the governor to take a leadership role on this and be a major player in pushing this application," added Gaffey, who said he's been told Rell had not spoken to her own education commissioner about the Race to the Top application.

Rell's office bristled at the accusation, sending The Associated Press a list of dates when she or her staff attended meetings or took actions concerning the program.

"Governor Rell and her staff have attended numerous meetings and spent countless hours assembling the 'Race to the Top' application and ensuring its high quality. What is important now is to act with one voice and to work together to qualify for this funding," according to a statement from Rell's office.

Much of the application builds on education reforms that Connecticut began years ago, such as encouraging more magnet and charter schools. It also includes some new ideas, such as creating a teacher exchange, allowing math, science, and other technical teachers to volunteer to work for a few years in urban districts without losing their seniority back home.

The far-reaching plan focuses on ways to design alternative programs to help high school students in danger of dropping out; encouraging greater parent involvement; pair mentor teachers with beginning teachers; create a learning center at Eastern Connecticut State University for new learners of English; and allow a longer school year in some districts.

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