If it is true, as writer, historian, and philosopher Will Durant once observed, that education is the transmission of civilization, we should brace ourselves for a period of lurching and grinding gears. It is troubling enough that the Newtown school district is once again having problems winning local support for its annual budget. (This week’s referendum underlined a recurring suspicion in town that at least some of Newtown’s investment in education is a waste of money.) But then there is Hartford, where the legislature’s Appropriations Committee gnawed through the financial underpinnings of its own educational reform initiative, which one year ago this week inspired legislative leaders, education officials, and the governor to bask in a glow of pride, bipartisanship, and self-congratulation as they heralded “a new beginning” for educational excellence in Connecticut’s schools.
This year, Governor Dannel P. Malloy was seeking $41.9 million for new charter schools, implementation of a new system of teacher evaluations, and the Commissioner’s Network, which is designed to turn around the state’s failing schools. The Appropriations Committee is allocating just $14.7 million for these three initiatives. The committee dug in its heels when the governor failed to include funds for several school programs favored by the co-chairwoman of the committee, according to The Connecticut Mirror. Pride of accomplishment, it seems, has been eclipsed by pride of politics.
The failure to adequately fund the implementation of the new teacher evaluation process promises to affect Newtown the most. The reform requires the state’s school districts to start evaluating their teachers this school year, with the results of those evaluations affecting tenure and dismissal decisions in the 2014-2015 school year.
State funds for the program have already been cut once, when legislators reduced educational spending by nearly $20 million last winter to help fill a midyear deficit. Additional rollbacks in funding will only transfer the costs of the program to local school districts. Bethany’s first selectman, Derrylyn Gorski, told legislators in January that her town was having buyer’s remorse for stepping forward to serve as a pilot district for the evaluation program. “What you pass may look innocent enough,” she told them, “But it is adding 43 work days to administrators who are already very busy… This is such a burden to the small towns.” How quickly a state budget problem becomes a local budget problem.
Of all our human enterprises, education, above all, gives us opportunities for new beginnings, even when it is cash-starved and lurching from one tough spot to another. If we are to successfully drive civilization forward to the next generation and the next, we have to keep at the business of reforming our schools and, by extension, our future prospects even when the money runs out. It may be a burden, but its one we put down at our own peril.