By Linda Conner Lambeck and Ken Dixon, Staff Writers
Published in Connecticut Post, January 4, 2012
In Dannel P. Malloy’s first year as governor, Connecticut struck out in its third bid at Race to the Top dollars. The state takeover of the failing Bridgeport school board is being legally challenged and is in the hands of the state Supreme Court. Connecticut’s standing on national and international benchmarks continues to slip.
About the only top slot the constitution state still clings to is “largest achievement gap in the nation.”
So educational reform advocates say much is riding on Malloy’s pledge that 2012 will be the year of education reform.
Malloy is hosting an Education Workshop Thursday at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. Many invited are convinced the policies that begin to take shape there may lead to legislation that can transform the state’s failing schools and ultimately assist in growing the economy.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Pat Riccards, director of ConnCAN, a New Haven-based advocacy organization.
Riccards said the governor, thus far, has done everything he said he would do in his first year of office by appointing a like-minded commissioner of education, shaking up the state department of education and setting the stage for movement on teacher performance, early childhood education and school funding.
“I think the governor is sincere in his attempt to address all six of the principles he laid out and that we will likely see a plan … that offers some real and I would say bold solutions to get us there,” said Riccards.
Late last month, Malloy outlined his reform “road map” in a letter to state legislative leaders. Malloy — like the administration before him — wants legislation that will give more students access to high-quality preschool. He wants to improve teaching and school leadership, deliver more state resources to needy districts, expand access to high-performing magnet and charter schools, and allow for more state control of low performing school districts while lessening the grip on districts that do well.
Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, said all that sounds great, but she isn’t getting her hopes up.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think the moral courage exists to do what needs to be done,” said Samuel, a Meriden parent whose efforts two years ago led to a law requiring schools to set up school governance councils. The councils, which include parents, play a role in reconstituting failing schools.
Samuel said there are important issues not on Malloy’s list that she’d like to see addressed, such as changing the residency law. This law got Tanya McDowell, a mother arrested on larceny charges last year for “stealing” education for her son by placing him in a Norwalk school when officials said he belonged in Bridgeport.
“I do believe [the governor] will push the envelope. For that I will get behind him 200 percent, as long as it is not just rhetoric,” said Samuel.
Steve Simmons, vice chairman of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a group of business and foundation leaders, said he is very optimistic that this year will bring significant change to education in the state. “This time it’s for real,” said Simmons, who also co-chaired the Connecticut Commission for Education Achievement under the Rell administration.
Simmons said the principles outlined by Malloy would go a long way in lifting educational achievement of all Connecticut students. He is also convinced lawmakers will ultimately go along with the plan.
State Sen. Pro Tem Donald Williams this week said education will play an important role in the short session that starts Feb. 8, but that jobs and the economy are still front and center.
Rep. Auden Grogins, D-Bridgeport, a member of the General Assembly’s Education Committee, said she is looking forward to hearing Malloy’s educational initiatives and hopes they will help close the achievement gap — between students based on race, ethnicity and poverty — which has its epicenter in districts like Bridgeport.
“Suburbs don’t have as much of the achievement gap as we do,” Grogins said. “They don’t face as much as we do, with the large population of English-language learners. It costs us more. I think the governor is committed to progress in those areas.”
State Rep. Andres Ayala, D-Bridgeport, leader of the city’s legislative delegation, said that the Educational Cost Sharing formula has to be revised in order to pump more money into the school district. “We need to be talking about more funding for Bridgeport, more teachers, more critical services,” Ayala said.
The city’s delegation recently sent a letter to the task force studying the ECS issue, inviting them to Bridgeport for a hearing.
Rep. Debralee Hovey, R-Monroe, a member of the legislative Education Committee whose district includes part of Newtown, said that the achievement gap looms over all school systems, “but it’s an issue you can’t paint with a broad brush.” Hovey likes Malloy’s idea to give districts that meet certain educational goals a pass on expensive state mandates, such as in-school suspensions, where staff must supervise small numbers of students who are being disciplined.
“My districts are worried about providing the best education they can for the dollar,” Hovey said. “Taxpayers in this economy are very concerned about spending the money and they want to make sure the money gets to the kids.”
Thursday’s workshop will feature an address by U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter and a number of panelists, including Sandy Kase, a former superintendent for the New York City Chancellor’s District, who is now in Bridgeport to work under interim Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas. The governor’s office said 350 people have been invited to the daylong event.
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