By James C. Smith and John J. Crawford

Published by Republican American, April 1, 2012

Connecticut is at a fork in the road on education. We can perpetuate a system with our nation’s biggest achievement gap between students in low-income and higher-income schools; or we can chart a bold new course that will give every child the opportunity for a great education and the skills to pursue a meaningful career.

If we care about children and our state’s future, there really is no choice. The legislature must enact genuine reforms, as outlined in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal. Unfortunately, as amended by the Education Committee on March 26, SB 24 is not true reform. The committee watered down key provisions proposed by the governor and supported by a broad group of organizations.

Everyone has read about the system’s failings. Low-income fourth- and eighth-graders perform, on average, more than three grade levels below their wealthier peers in basic subjects such as reading and math. Every day, more than 100,000 Connecticut students attend schools the state has classified for five years or more as substandard and in need of improvement. Yet they fail to improve. More than 8,000 Connecticut high school students drop out each year. Too many of those who do graduate arrive at postsecondary schools needing remedial math or English.

Comprehensive in its approach, SB 24 as originally introduced by the governor aims to fix what ails our schools in five critical areas:

Accountability. We must adopt new performance-based evaluation and tenure systems for teachers, principals and superintendents. This was the most glaring omission from the Education Committee’s revised bill. Without this measure, even the best-intended reforms will languish.

Supporting educators. Just as in every other aspect of our lives, we must reward performance among teachers and administrators, evaluate them as we do every other professional, and provide opportunities to improve their skills.

At-risk students. Our state must give more children access to quality early-childhood-education programs; provide additional assistance to students from low-income households or poor academic histories; and offer incentives to teachers who choose to work in low-performing schools.

Fixing broken schools. We need a systematic, intensive approach for intervening in failing schools, delivering the resources to fix what’s wrong, and monitor results.

Offering choice. Funding for magnet, charter and technical high schools needs to be increased, with preference for charter schools with a record of educating underserved children.

Education reform is by no means code for scapegoating teachers. We respect the state’s many excellent teachers. However, to raise academic achievement for all of Connecticut’s students, we need to ensure every child in Connecticut has a great teacher every year.

Connecticut’s economy also will pay a heavy price if we fail to address lower productivity, fewer qualified workers and higher social costs. The impact on the dropouts themselves is devastating. They can expect to earn less, be unemployed more often, and be more likely to go to prison. Connecticut employers know our public schools must produce more college- and career-ready graduates if we are to improve our state’s economic viability and vitality. If we do not reform education meaningfully, Connecticut’s retirees for the first time in 50 years will be better educated than those replacing them.

Faced with an opportunity to support transformational change, the Education Committee blinked. The full legislature must seize this moment, restore the measures proposed by Gov. Malloy, and enact genuine education reform. Now is the time to let your voice be heard. Contact your legislators and urge them to enact education reform as proposed by the governor. It is time to do the right thing for our children and change the education system in Connecticut.

James C. Smith is chairman and CEO of Webster Financial Corp. John J. Crawford is lead director of Webster and president of Strategem LLC of New Haven.

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