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State must sustain NL magnet plan

Published April 06. 2014 4:00AM

Grumblings coming out of Hartford should cause concern for New London officials planning for the transformation to an all-magnet school district. The expectation is to attract increased state funding, while racially and economically diversifying city schools.

In his recent meeting with The Day editorial board, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy sought to damper expectations that a big boost in state aid was a fait accompli.

"The idea that school systems can self-declare that they are going to be all-magnet schools and, therefore, the state's going to provide the money to do it, is something that we have to wrestle with, quite frankly," Gov. Malloy said.

Last year, the New London Board of Education, working closely with state-appointed Special Master Steven Adamowski, approved a three-year Strategic Operating Plan that defines a series of steps to turn New London into an all-magnet district. The plan anticipates that conversion will attract about 750 out-of-town students and result in an additional $9 million annually in state funding for New London.

Three of the city's six schools are designated magnet schools.

"The expense of taking that number of schools into a state-funded system for one community would be pretty high," Gov. Malloy said. "So we need to figure out ways we cost effectively can do that."

One might logically conclude that since a state-appointed advisor - Dr. Adamowski - helped lead New London down this path, state commitment to make it work would follow. The problem is that fiscal realities are catching up with high expectations as the state tries to improve its low-performing urban school districts.

Last week members of the Legislation and Policy Development Committee of the State Board of Education were told about legislative discussions to place limits on student enrollment in magnet schools and reduce state support. Under the current formula, the state provides an additional $3,000 a year per magnet-school student.

The $30 million needed to continue phasing in enrollment next year at 10 interdistrict magnet schools in Bridgeport, Hartford and Windham has not been included in either the governor's budget or the recommendations of the Appropriations Committee, The Connecticut Mirror reports.

Another indication of the tension between the governor's education reform aspirations and the ability to pay for them surfaced this past week when Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the budget-writing committee, expressed concern over the State Board of Education's approval of two more charter schools. The schools, in Stamford and Bridgeport, would open in the 2015-2016 school year, enrolling 1,157 students and costing the state $12.7 million annually.

Telling the Mirror she was "sort of outraged," Rep. Bye asked, "Where do they think this money is going to come from?"

State lawmakers from the region had better prepare to dig in and fight for funds. Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chairs the Education Committee, but has announced this term is her last, which will make the fight that much harder.

The case can be made that New London, because of its small size, is the perfect test case to determine whether the magnet approach is able to close the performance gap - between rich and poor communities - that has long plagued education in Connecticut.

The governor said he seeks results in New London "that (are) sustainable and can be replicated" in other districts.

That is a goal well worth a substantial investment by the state.

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