Courtney says state unlikely to get federal school money

Despite a frantic last-minute drive to Washington last month to submit Connecticut's application for $192.7 million in federal education funding, the state is unlikely to get a dime of the new money this spring, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Wednesday.

In a meeting with The Day's editorial board, Courtney said he doubted Connecticut would be among the recipients of $1.35 billion in funding from the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, in part because the state's application to the competitive grant program was "kind of cobbled together pretty last-minute" by state officials.

The last-minute completion of the state application was among numerous complaints Courtney said he's heard in conversations with local school superintendents, who also felt they had been insufficiently consulted in the development of Connecticut's plan for the money.

The Race to the Top program, which will be the subject of Congressional hearings in the next few weeks, is intended to provide new school funding to states in exchange for new commitments to data collection about educational performance and other efforts to improve public schools.

"I've met with a lot of superintendents over the last month or two who want to be supportive of the state and help the state get what it's capable of, but there was a feeling that was expressed that they really were not a partner in the application," Courtney said.

The congressman's comments irritated officials in Gov. M. Jodi Rell's administration, who rejected the characterization of the state's plan as rushed but conceded one detail that had contributed to that impression: The state's application paperwork was driven down to Washington by an aide from the state Department of Education, just in time to meet the application deadline.

"Every state was scrambling to meet the deadline," said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state education department, in an e-mail message.

"A young staffer and her fiancé drove it down (but they also wanted to go to D.C. for the weekend)," Murphy said. "That gave us an extra two days, which we used. People worked nights and weekends to make this happen. It was a great day for the Department."

Rell's staff also pointed to a letter signed by all seven members of the state's congressional delegation, including Courtney, in support of the application. The letter praised state officials for working in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and others to develop Connecticut's plan for the funds.

And Connecticut was one of 25 states that received up to $250,000 in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to assist in preparing their applications, Murphy noted.

The comments that caused the flare-up came as Courtney discussed the relationship between the congressional delegation and the Rell administration, which has played a key role in implementing major federal laws, like the stimulus package.

There have been other disputes.

Courtney and others loudly objected in 2008 when the Rell administration excluded eastern Connecticut entirely from the $25 million federally funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program, meant to assist towns struggling with large numbers of homes in foreclosure.

And Courtney is among those who have objected to the way the Rell administration used money from the stimulus package to support the state's public school grants. While federal guidelines said states should not "supplant" existing school funding with federal aid in order to balance their budgets, a report by the U.S. Department of Education's inspector general said last year that Connecticut was one of three states that had done so.

The result could be steeper budget problems to come, Courtney said Wednesday.

"I haven't done a detailed analysis on all states," he said. "All I know is the way the state used fiscal stabilization funds, the school districts feel that either the state's going to have to make a huge new investment starting in 2011 or they're going to have a real problem on their hands."

Rell's spokesman disputed that, however, noting that the state had been required to confirm that state spending on schools would be equal to its levels in 2006.

"Not only have we done that, state education spending for FY 2008 was approximately $3.9 billion and for FY 2009 it was approximately $4 billion," said Rich Harris, "so our expenditures actually increased."

While there was a decrease in the "relative percentage" of spending on education compared to the overall budget, Harris said, it was only 0.09 percent.

"That's not exactly 'heavily supplanted' or a setup for a 'steep drop-off,' " he said.

t.mann@theday.com

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