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Adjust, don't reverse education reform

Published March 31. 2013 4:00AM

Despite the state's fiscal challenges, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration has remained committed to the provisions of the education reform act he signed into law in May 2012. The legislature needs to do the same.

Gov. Malloy has proposed some modest spending reductions, certainly reasonable given the need to close the roughly $2 billion shortfall projected for Connecticut over the next two fiscal years. But the governor recognizes that it would be a mistake to make substantial cuts in the funding commitments. Connecticut cannot delay efforts to improve public education and, more particularly, to close the large gap between academic performance in its urban schools as compared to their more affluent suburban neighbors.

The commitments in the reform act include $39.5 million in conditional aid - money that must be spent on new educational efforts - that will assist 30 low-performing districts in the state, labeled the Alliance Districts, including New London and Norwich.

What can happen when fiscal realities confront reform efforts was in evidence when the John B. Stanton Elementary School in Norwich, one of four "Commissioner's Network" schools targeted for particularly aggressive state intervention, learned that the $1.5 million it was set to receive this year would be cut by $180,000, due to budget problems. The level for funding for next year remains undcertain.

Cuts and funding uncertainty make it hard to plan for such reforms as increased tutoring, expanded summer programming and extra school hours.

Yet the administration seems intent on minimizing such disruptions to its reform efforts. Stanton was one of four Commissioner's Network schools selected. The state is moving forward with reviewing requests from several more schools wanting to enter the program. The education act calls for selecting up to 25 schools for such intervention, with reform plans developed and guided by local committees.

The state likewise saw some adjustment to its plans to increase aid to charter schools. These schools - such as New London's ISAAC school focusing on arts and communication - provide choices to students and parents, and have often out performed their public school counterparts. But charter school advocates say that without more state aid it will become increasingly difficult to meet their educational missions. Traditional public schools receive substantially more state aid per student than charter schools.

Charter per pupil funding was set to increase by $500 to $10,500 this fiscal year, but was cut by $300 when the state confronted a fiscal deficit. Likewise, the $11,000 per pupil allotment planed for fiscal year 2014 would be trimmed to $10,500 and the $11,500 the following year to $11,000, under the governor's budget proposal.

This approach, essentially slowing the plan to close the per-pupil spending gap, is appropriate. What we would urge the legislature not to do is freeze charter funding and inhibit a movement that is providing more educational options for Connecticut students. The state Department of Education has 27 letters of intent from parties interested in opening charter schools.

The General Assembly should also resist all efforts to delay implementation of a teacher and principal evaluation system. By most accounts pilot performance evaluation programs at 10 sites have gone well. Current plans call for schools to gradually introduce evaluations next school year with full implementation in 2014-2015. Connecticut needs to stick to the schedule.

Providing feedback and support for teachers, so they can improve performance, is an essential part of the education reform effort. So too is the ability to identify and ultimately dismiss those whose consistent low performance suggests they are in the wrong profession.

Connecticut made an historic commitment to improve public education in 2012, and while adjustments have been necessary to address fiscal realities, there should be no turning back.

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