By Michael Lee-Murphy

Published by CT News Junkie, April 5, 2012

Members of Connecticut’s business lobby and education reform advocates gathered Wednesday at the Capitol to denounce recent revisions to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed education overhaul.

The reforms were dialed back last week by the legislature’s Education Committee, converting many of the most controversial changes on teacher evaluation and tenure reform to year-long studies.

Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools, referred to committee’s decision to mandate the involvement of teacher unions in remediation procedures as a “step backward.”

Once a union is involved in the remediation process, “you’ve really lost the emphasis on the evidence [of low performance] itself,” she said.

The coalition recommends the re-institution of several of Malloy’s policy goals, and in some cases calls on lawmakers to go beyond Malloy’s initial efforts.

Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, called on legislators to give priority to “student learning needs” in any teacher contract that reaches arbitration.

The coalition’s press release also asked that lawmakers “resist efforts to further complicate due process laws.”

Asked for clarification on what such a change would practically mean, McCarthy said that currently, a student “is not really a consideration in the arbitration process, so it comes down to simply dollars and cents.”

“I think that you can define ‘student learning needs’ so it doesn’t open up some sort of pandora’s box and take everything out of collective bargaining. And that’s not our intent,” McCarthy said.

Eric Bailey, a spokesman for AFT Connecticut, has said he doesn’t understand how increasing a co-pay for teacher health insurance, which is one of the items sometimes discussed in arbitration, has any impact on student achievement.

“We think what they’re really saying is they want to get rid of binding arbitration,” Bailey said the last time the six groups held a press conference.

On the issue of tenure reform, the coalition says that “state policy must allow for fair and swift dismissal” when a teacher has received consistently low ratings.

The coalition’s press release dovetails neatly with Malloy’s new “We Can’t Wait” social media strategy, saying the the “lack of urgency” in the revised bill is “unacceptable.”

The Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a new group that grew out of an education task force created by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, has come under fire from blogger Jonathan Pelto, a former lawmaker from Mansfield. Pelto cites a CCER blog post in which the group refers to poverty as a “convenient scapegoat” for not implementing certain reforms, citing figures showing that low-income students in Massachusetts perform at much greater levels than in Connecticut.

Rae Ann Knopf, the council’s executive director sought to defend the allegation that the state’s business leaders who are part of her organization are unfamiliar with the struggles faced by children growing up in poverty.

“I want to be clear, we understand the effects of poverty . . . I know what it’s like to be a child who lives in poverty,” Knopf said.

“My parents were Native American, my grandparents were Native American. When they were children, they were worth more dead than alive in many states in this country,” Knopf said. “I think there are many of us in this room and outside this room that understand the challenges of living in poverty and being a minority in this country.”

The Connecticut Education Association, the larger of the two unions representing teachers in Connecticut, issued a statement condemning the “top-down reforms of the six education and business groups.”

“Management doesn’t want to give teachers a voice in improving schools — ignoring that collective bargaining helps establish mutual respect between teachers and management, essential to accelerating student improvement. And business groups seem to have a laser like focus on the potential profits that would come from privatizing our public schools,” the statement read.

Joseph Brennan, Senior Vice President of Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said that “we have supported increased funding for teachers, we supported the Education Enhancement Act, we have supported more money for pre-school education.”

“We have always had education as one our top priorities,” Brennan said.

Meanwhile, the closed-door negotiations between key lawmakers, union leaders, and administration officials over the bill have come to a halt.

The Malloy administration canceled two meetings with union officials last week and have yet to reschedule. On Tuesday it seemed unlikely they would reschedule.

“Right now we’re talking with legislators, trying to come to an agreement with them,” Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior communications adviser, said. “But I assume they’re in contact with the unions.”

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said Wednesday the conversations that involved the teacher unions were convened by the Malloy administration.

Since the bill passed the Education Committee 28-5, Fleischmann said he’s spent a lot of time talking to his colleagues in the House about the bill. He said he hasn’t had any formal discussions with the administration since the vote.

At the moment he said it seems like everyone is talking around each other through press conferences and press releases.

“I think that when people start talking we’ll be able to reach an agreement,” Fleischmann said.

Fleischmann said he appreciates the advocacy the six groups demonstrated again Wednesday, but he doesn’t believe if Malloy’s bill was put forth for a vote it wouldn’t have passed committee, adding that as a lawmaker he has to “advocate for legislation that can pass.

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.