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Duff, Kassimis Spar on School Funding

Democratic Sen. Bob Duff and his Republican opponent Artie Kassimis squared off on education-related issues in a debate at City Hall on Thursday night organized by the League of Women Voters of Norwalk and REdApples, a grassroots group in Norwalk.

Throughout the debate, Duff called education a "priority" linked to the long-term success of the state. "Employers want an educated work force," he said. Kassimis focused on the state's fiscal problems, repeatedly mentioning the state's $3.4 billion budget deficit. "We have to tighten our belt. They [the Democrats] continue to sign bills that cost money. Who is going to pay for them?" he said.

Kassimis asked why Norwalk does not receive more money from the state for its schools. "We only get 8 cents on the dollar of what we send to Hartford," he said. Kassimis faulted Duff for allowing the much-smaller Meriden, a city represented by Sen. Thomas Gaffey, chairman of the Education Committee, to receive five times the funding that Norwalk receives.

"The formula is completely flawed," said Kassimis. "Norwalk is being punished."

Kassimis incorrectly referred to Duff as vice chair of the Appropriations Committee.

"I have never been vice chairman of the committee, " said Duff, who focused on his bipartisan work to bring funds to Norwalk. While Kassimis said funding has decreased in the last 10 years, Duff said the amount increased 24 percent in the first four years of his term before the recession hit.

Both cited early childhood education as a primary way to reduce the achievement gap. They also support lifting the cap on charter schools in the state. "Some children have different needs and learn better in different environments," said Duff.

Kassimis said he was not in favor of tying student test scores to merit pay for teachers, a central component of the Obama administration's education reform agenda. "This will pit teachers against each other," said Kassimis. "Teachers are not doing this for the money, they are doing it for the kids. We lose the purpose of teaching if we base it on money." Duff, however, said merit pay can be "done well," based on a collaborative model, as is the case in New Haven.

Both candidates addressed the state’s rejected Race to the Top application. Kassimis said he supported the grant’s general goal to raise standards, but says that the stat is now burdened with $17 million of expenses to pay for increased high school graduation requirements. “Who is going to pay for the additional teachers?” he asked, also noting that the application did not address how to further early childhood education.

“I will not apologize for supporting Race to the Top,”  said Duff.  “The bill was about higher standards in math, science and world languages.  We must march forward.”

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