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In Hartford, Stimulus Funds for Schools Leveraged for State Budget Crunch

June 26, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports on how one school district in Connecticut is weathering the recession, and how the state is using stimulus funds to close budget deficits rather than increase education spending.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, an on-the-ground report on the battle over how federal economic stimulus money should be used as seen in one school district in Connecticut. Our story comes from special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour.

JOHN TULENKO, NewsHour Correspondent: Hartford, Connecticut, is the kind of place Washington had in mind when it gave public schools some $40 billion in stimulus money.

Steven Adamowski is superintendent.

DR. STEVEN J. ADAMOWSKI, Superintendent, Hartford Public Schools: Hartford is the second poorest city per capita in America, behind Brownsville, Texas, so the level of poverty here is extreme. Ninety percent of our children live in poverty.

JOHN TULENKO: Inside Hartford’s 47 public schools, children fall behind almost from the start. Only 33 percent of third-graders passed the state reading test last year. That compares to almost 70 percent for the rest of the state, which includes some of the wealthiest school districts in the country.

DR. STEVEN J. ADAMOWSKI: Connecticut happens to be the state that has the highest achievement gap of the 50 states in the United States. So it doesn’t get much more compelling than this.

School system 'redesigned'

JOHN TULENKO: But in Hartford, the gap is beginning to close. Last year, test scores rose by 2 percent, reversing a seven-year decline. It's the result of a citywide reform effort, just over 2 years old, that's brought big changes to schools. Only now, teacher layoffs and program cuts are threatening the progress.

Hartford isn't alone. Tough times are forcing districts everywhere to cut, and that's raising questions about billions of education stimulus money already on its way to states, money intended to prevent school cuts and protect reform in places like Hartford.

The city's efforts to overhaul low-performing schools began in 2007. Hartford Public High was a priority. For years, only 1 in 3 students made it to graduation.

ADAM JOHNSON, Principal, Law and Government Academy, Hartford Public High School: Hartford Public High School has been a dropout factory. I think for so long schools and the community and so on has had very, very low expectations for what is possible.

JOHN TULENKO: Not anymore. Last fall, Hartford Public High was redesigned, its 1,600 students given new teachers and new leadership. Adam Johnson was made a principal.

ADAM JOHNSON: We have redesigned the school into four small themed academies. I happen to be the principal of one of them, which is called the Law and Government Academy here at Hartford Public High School. I've got about 350 to 400 kids. I know every single of them.

JOHN TULENKO: At the new Hartford Public High, ninth-graders attend their own freshman academy. Students in the upper grades choose between a Nursing Academy, an Academy for Green Technology, or the Law and Government Academy. Each has its own wing of the building and uniform.

JERYLN CESPEDES, Hartford Public High School: I like the uniform. It's just -- I've never dressed this way before, like ever. So I just feel like the uniform has really made me more confident and more motivated to come to school.

Students respond to changes

JOHN TULENKO: These juniors attended Hartford Public High before and after the changes.

MARIA GALAN, Hartford Public High School: There's not so much chaos as there was in the previous years when it was just one big school. It makes it, like, easier for me to learn. There's no distractions. I don't have to worry about people in the halls walking while the teacher's talking.

JERYLN CESPEDES: Last year was really, really, really easy.

JOHN TULENKO: And this year?

JERYLN CESPEDES: This year, I've got A.P. classes, really hard.

MARIA GALAN: Every project they give us, every assignment they give us, they always tell us, "This is what you'll do in college."

ADAM JOHNSON: I try to spread this message to our kids to say, no matter what your situation might be right now, no matter what your cousins, brothers and sisters, parents did, you have the ability to be tremendously successful in this world, and education is your ticket to do it.

JOHN TULENKO: Hartford Public High is just 1 of 17 district schools that have introduced major changes. And the reforms also included choice, meaning parents can pick from any district school.

But while these changes were happening, Connecticut's economy tanked. Hartford looked to the federal stimulus package and the $500 million for Connecticut schools to carry its reforms forward.

ADAM JOHNSON: When I watched President Obama talking about cities that were laying off police and firefighters and teachers, and Congress then quickly moved to pass this money, it was very exciting.

I was really hoping to add a school counselor. I was hoping to add an assistant principal. I was hoping to add another reading teacher. I really thought that money would be coming directly to us, and I saw that money as something that was going to save the day.

Debate over stimulus funds

JOHN TULENKO: When Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell announced her budget in February, she appeared to be on board.

GOV. JODI RELL (R), Connecticut: My budget flat funds -- yes, flat funds -- state aid to municipalities for the next two years. No cuts to any major educational formula grant, none.

ADAM JOHNSON: She said, "We're not cutting education." That was a rhetorical tool that, I believe, is misleading.

JOHN TULENKO: Though the stimulus provided $541 million for Connecticut schools, they're seeing no increase, because Gov. Rell proposes to drop state education spending by the same amount, to help close a $3 billion deficit.

So you're getting flat-funding, essentially what you got a year ago. What about stimulus money?

ADAM JOHNSON: What's happened is, the governor has said, I'm going to use this money to help to bankroll my own deficit, to help to make up our own deficit.

So it is not acting like stimulus. It is acting as, you know, a gap-filler for her and for her budget.

JOHN TULENKO: Though legal, supplanting state money for education with stimulus money is not what the law intended.

We wanted to ask Gov. Rell about her use of federal funds, but she declined repeated requests for an interview.

Connecticut isn't the only state where the stimulus won't mean extra money for schools. Of the 30 states that have received school stimulus dollars so far, nine have cut state education spending by an equal or near equal amount, resulting in flat funding. In 10 states, the cuts are even deeper, meaning the stimulus can't fill the hole.

In flat-funded states like Connecticut, last year's budget won't cover higher costs for teacher salaries, utilities, and health care, so schools must cut.

ADAM JOHNSON: For next school year, I've cut a health teacher, I've cut a math teacher, I've cut a special educator, I've cut one security guard, I've cut potentially a number of paraprofessionals.

Teacher layoffs in Hartford

JOHN TULENKO: To close a $21 million shortfall, Hartford is laying off 250 employees, including 99 teachers, many of them promising young recruits.

DR. STEVEN J. ADAMOWSKI: It's a concern from a quality standpoint as well as a standpoint of numbers. We are a site for Teach for America, so we have a number of those folks who want to do the work with children who need good teachers the most. So whenever we have a loss like this, invariably we will lose some top performers.

JOHN TULENKO: More cuts could be on the way. Connecticut's deficit, $3 billion in February, has tripled. Across the country, staggering deficits mean a major goal of the stimulus -- to drive school reform -- appears less likely.

DR. STEVEN J. ADAMOWSKI: How you could have estimated this if you're sitting in Washington, I don't know. It remains to be seen, I think, whether or not we can keep the reform going at this level of resource.

JOHN TULENKO: Schools will soon learn how much money they're getting. Connecticut lawmakers expect a final budget agreement by June 30th.