By Hugh McQuaid

Published by CT News Junkie, July 12, 2011

A nonprofit group consisting predominately of business leaders and inspired by a commission appointed by former-Gov. M. Jodi Rell called Tuesday for the implementation of 65 recommendations included its report, which they said will help to close Connecticut’s worst-in-the-country achievement gap.

The group originated as the Connecticut Commission on Education Achievement, a Rell initiative comprised of philanthropic and business leaders. And according to Chairwoman Peyton R. Patterson, former CEO of New Alliance Bank, business input is why the group will succeed where other nonprofits have failed.

“Some people may wonder, ‘why do we need another education focused nonprofit in the state of Connecticut? We have several.’ While Connecticut is fortunate to have some amazing organizations on some facet of education reform, there is no group, sponsored by the business community, that addressed the comprehensive statewide scope of the council,” she said during a press conference at the state Capitol.

The group’s recommendations focus on changing the governance of education, push for access to prekindergarten, and demand accountability of schools and teachers, she said.

For years, the state’s academic performance gap between low and non-low income students has confounded leaders. On average Connecticut spends more on the education of each student than most other states in the country.

And while Connecticut students traditionally perform well on standardized testing, the achievement gap persists. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress for 8th grade math, Connecticut had the largest score gap of 34. That’s three points larger than Maryland, the state with the second biggest gap on that test, according statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.

Discussion about the topic is plagued by misconceptions, Patterson said. Many attribute the achievement gap to the high performance of Connecticut’s non-low income students. The reality, she said, is the problem is largely due to the poor performance of its low-income students, who rank in the nation’s bottom third.

“Connecticut’s low-income students on average perform like states like Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia,” she said.

The council stressed that the wide academic divide between income levels is not strictly a city problem, as many people believe. The fourth grade reading achievement gap is actually larger in wealthy towns like West Hartford, Greenwich and Stamford than it is in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, they said.

“Although the achievement gap is wider in wealthier districts, low-income students actually have better academic achievement in these districts. So it is safe to say the achievement gap affects all of us, it exists in every town and every district across the state of Connecticut,” Patterson said.

The divide impacts the state’s economy because educational failure comes at a huge cost, she said. Students who dropped out of high school have an unemployment rate close to 2.5 times than that of high school grads and on average they earn just two-thirds of their incomes, she said.

They are more likely also to end up in state prisons and more likely to be relying on government health care and public services, according to studies.

More dropouts also mean a loss of tax dollars for the state. High school graduates contribute approximately $500,000 more in net tax contributions, she said.

Despite the current budget crisis, the council said the time for education reform is now. The state must accept many aspects of education reform as priorities and find a way to get them in place, said board member and Connecticut Business and Industry Association President John R. Rathgeber.

One of those priorities should be universal access to prekindergarten education, he said. The council did not initially have the topic on their agenda, but as they held hearings in cities and towns across the state, it became evident it was important, he said.

In addition to funding, the state lacks the infrastructure accommodate more pre-K education. That necessitates building adequate facilities and getting more people trained to do the job, he said.

“There are resources available and I think over time we’re just going to have to say this is a priority for the state of Connecticut recognizing the fact that if we don’t do it we’re going to have more dropouts we’re going to have more incarcerations and more issues that are going to cost a lot of money,” he said.

Some funding for reform could come from reallocating money already being spent on education, said board member and retired Chairman of The Hartford Ramani Ayer.

“It is so important that we recognize that we are in this state spending a lot of money on education also, spending a significant amount of money on discretionary grants around the state. We need to take a step back and take a look at what’s working and what’s not working,” he said.

Rathgeber said the city of Hartford recently showed a great example of how to successfully reallocate funds by shifting money out of its central office and into the classrooms.

Patterson said the council will continue to work to get its recommendations implemented by publicizing the achievement gap regularly and show its negative effect the state. They will also work with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and lawmakers to change policies, she said.

She pointed out that Malloy has already stated the next legislative session should focus on education reform.

“The winds of change are going in our direction and we intend to act on that,” she said.

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