Square Peg, Round Hole?

Some in Connecticut question wisdom of the governor's plan to merge the state's technical high school and community college systems.
February 6, 2009

When Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut said she hoped to trim “the bloat of bureaucracy” from her state’s budget, few expected the major overhaul of the state’s education system that she proposed Wednesday.

During an address outlining her forthcoming biennial budget before the state legislature, Rell -- a second-term Republican -- unveiled a plan to combine the state’s technical high school and community college systems under the same administrative umbrella. She argued that the new Middle College System would “bridge the gap between high school and higher education” by coordinating their curriculums, and save students money by allowing them the ability to earn a maximum of 60 tuition-free college credits while in high school. The new system, she continued, would improve “graduation rates and career prospects” for community college students.

There are many “middle college” models already in place around the country. A high school will often place a certain number or all of its students on the campus of a local community college to readily engage them in a more advanced academic atmosphere. The high school and community college, then co-located, have the ability to share instructors and resources. This, combined with firm articulation agreements, ease what is often a difficult transition for some students to higher education. While many high schools have dual-enrollment courses for credit, few qualify as “middle colleges” without further and sustained interaction with their sponsoring community colleges. Often these institutions are unique in their state or region and very rarely, if ever, are these models adopted system-wide.

Tom Murphy, the Connecticut Department of Education's spokesman, said Rell’s proposed system differs from the traditional model in that the state’s 17 technical high schools and 12 community colleges will not be sharing campuses -- in fact, most will be many miles apart -- but will still attempt to share resources like “middle colleges” do. For example, he said, community colleges would sponsor satellite courses at these local high schools to reach students in different areas of the state. Also, he noted that the system would bus high school students to nearby community colleges to take advantage of better technical facilities.

In another silver lining, Murphy added that the governor’s budget office projected that the proposed consolidation could save about $1 million over the next two years by trimming “overlapping bureaucracy.”

Rell’s proposal, however, is scant on details as to what this might mean for students on the ground. The corresponding bill, recently submitted to the legislature, only suggests a new administrative structure for the system and does not detail such issues as how to implement such a transition. A new board of trustees for the Middle College System would assume both the duties of the State Board of Education with regard to the technical high schools and of the Board of Trustees for Community-Technical Colleges. The governor would appoint this new 24-member board, to be led by the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management.

The state’s Office of Workforce Competitiveness -- a division of the Department of Labor -- would also be folded into the new system and would absorb some of the administrative duties of the high school and community college systems. Some legislators charged with overseeing educational policy, however, are skeptical of the new system and feel it puts too much emphasis on job training over a community college's transfer function.

“Looking at the legislation, this talks like it’s a work force development body and not a college,” said State Rep. Roberta B. Willis, Democractic co-chair of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee. “I think it’s dreadful. This system won’t be headed by educators anymore. The community college mission is much greater than just developing career paths for people. People go to community college for a lot of reasons. A lot of our community colleges are feeders to state universities. They’re getting lost in this new system. It’ll take the community out of community college.”

Willis said she was one of many people “completely caught off guard” by the governor’s proposal. Usually knowledgeable about developments in educational policy at the state level, she said that she and many other leaders first heard of the plan only during Rell’s budget address. Willis noted it would be extremely difficult to get a working model, sorting out all of the details, before the Middle College System’s proposed launch date of July 1.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, Democratic co-chair of the Education Committee, also expressed suspicion about the proposed leadership of the new system.

“It’s a very strange notion that people whose expertise is in training the work force should be running a system that involves educating children in grades 9 through 14,” Fleischmann said. “I think our Office of Workforce Competitiveness does a wonderful job identifying what skills the Connecticut work force needs, but they have no experience in how to educate college freshmen and sophomores. For them to be running the show with experts of education reporting up to them seems strange.”

He also said that the spirit of a “middle college” would not be possible without having the high school and community campuses co-located. There are, he explained, already a number of successful and similarly minded relationships between individual institutions around the state. For example, Great Path Academy is a fully engaged “middle college” operated on the campus of Manchester Community College. Capital Preparatory Magnet School also works hand-in-hand with Capital Community College, in Hartford. Fleischmann argued that instead of hastily combining the two systems, it would be better to test out other pilot programs similar to the “middle colleges” already operating elsewhere in the state.

“It seems to me that this was a slapdash, last-minute proposal,” Fleischmann said. “It’s imaginable that, with careful planning and thoughtful construction, we could develop a middle college system. But it’s hard to believe that the governor has done the necessary work to accomplish that with this proposal. I’m concerned that if we accept this proposal we’ll be undermining two great systems and creating a hybrid that is subpar. It’s my speculation that the governor and her budget people viewed this as a way to save dollars.”

Abigail Hughes, superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System, did not respond to requests for comment. Officials from Connecticut Community College, however, had few reservations about the proposal to merge but expressed great concern at the governor’s proposed budget.

Mary Anne Cox, the system’s assistant chancellor, said the governor’s proposal was a “conceptually appealing idea.” Still, she noted that she was not sure how it would ultimately save money in the long term, as new faculty and other resources would be needed to serve the 10,000 students in the state’s technical high school system.

Currently, she said the system cannot afford to meet the contractual obligation it has to fully pay its existing faculty and staff. According to calculations from Cox’s office, the governor’s proposed budget cuts the community college system’s budget by 10 percent next fiscal year and 12 percent in the year after as it phases out into the new Middle College System. With systemwide enrollment up 10 percent from last spring, she said she was unsure how it could meet its current demand before even considering a merger with the technical high school system.

Given the concerns from many education leaders, Fleischmann said the proposal for a Middle College System “does not appear to stand much of a chance.” Thursday, the bill was referred to the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Education, where it will face further review and debate.

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