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Education issues raised in 38th House debate

Waterford - Education issues played a prominent role in Wednesday's debate among the three candidates for the 38th District seat in the state House of Representatives.

Green Party candidate Bill Collins, Republican candidate Kathleen McCarty and Democratic candidate Marc Balestracci differentiated their stances on the New London Public Schools' plans to convert to the state's first all-magnet school district and the federally mandated Common Core State Standards Initiative.

McCarty, chairman of the Board of Education in Waterford, touted the district as a local leader in implementing Common Core, an educational initiative aimed at creating uniform achievement standards in schools across the nation.

"The local school boards still have total control over the curriculum," McCarty said.

Collins, who has worked as a professor at area colleges, criticized Common Core for emphasizing skills to the detriment of content, saying that the standards were leading to students not reading the entirety of classics such as "Moby Dick" but instead reading only portions of such books. The result, he said, was a loss of opportunity to learn about cultural touchstones.

"We're going to end up with a lot of kids that are corporate products that go through this program," he said.

McCarty said that the classics and poetry are still taught in Waterford's schools even with the standards implemented. She said her main concern was increased workload on teachers due to new evaluation and testing requirements.

Balestracci said he supports Common Core as long as teachers had sufficient teaching resources to meet demands of the new standards. Still, he criticized part of the Common Core requirements.

"The main problem with Common Core is teaching to a test," said Balestracci, a Waterford Police Department sergeant.

Collins said that for every standardized test, someone makes a profit.

"I don't think it's an entirely innocent program being thrust upon us," he said.

McCarty and Balestracci came out in clear support of the magnet school plan. McCarty said the focus on town schools should not be abandoned, mentioning recent marketing campaigns waged by districts including Waterford to retain students who might otherwise migrate to existing magnet schools in the area. Still, she said she supports the magnet school proposal in New London.

Collins said his support of the plan would depend on how it might impact property taxes.

Other issues where candidates demonstrated clear differences were in their views on implementing tolls on I-95 and legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Balestracci said he would support tolls on I-95 with proper planning. McCarty said she does not support tolls, saying she believes money for transportation improvements could be found in part through keeping funds in transportation accounts, which she asserted were frequently raided for other state costs.

Collins said he would support tolls, but he expressed reservations. He said he recalled issues with congestion leading to accidents in the past when I-95 had tollbooths. He then said that he would prefer efforts aimed at expanding public transportation over those aimed at expanding the highway system.

"I'm not so sure we need more roads as we need less pollution," he said.

As for legalization of recreational use of marijuana, McCarty and Balestracci came out in firm opposition with Balestracci saying he also opposes medicinal use. Collins said he leaned toward supporting recreational use, comparing the outlawing of such use to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s.

The debate was the 12th and final debate for the November 2014 elections sponsored by The Day and the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, with assistance from the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut.

The 38th District includes Waterford and a portion of Montville. Rep. Betsy Ritter, a Democrat, held the seat for five terms before opting this year to run for the 20th District Senate seat. Ritter faces Republican candidate Paul Formica.

t.townsend@theday.com

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess

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