Published by The Hartford Courant, May 5, 2012

By Kathleen Megan

Legislative Leaders Said To Be ‘On Board’ With Long-Awaited Compromise

HARTFORD —  Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Monday night that his administration and lawmakers had reached an agreement on “meaningful education reform” — an agreement that he said adds nearly $100 million in new education spending and will help the state regain its competitive edge.

“This is a big issue, maybe the biggest we’ll tackle, because it involves our children,” Malloy said, speaking in the packed Old Judiciary Room at the Capitol. “And with any big issue, especially when you’re trying to change things, it’s hard. Change is hard. But we have achieved change, and our children will benefit.”

The long-fought and long-awaited final bill scales back some of the governor’s most cherished goals, spelled out during his State of the State address in February and at numerous town hall meetings since.

“We will not fix what’s broken overnight,” Malloy said. “We can’t. But we will begin to.”

Republicans were absent from the news conference but stopped by the press room about 11 p.m. “There is no bill to read,” House Minority Leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said, adding, “99.9 percent of the General Assembly has not seen this bill.”

He and Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield said they might eventually support the bill. However, “We shouldn’t be voting on a bill without having an opportunity to read it and review it.”

The bill finally became available online about 11:30 p.m. Debate on the bill began in the Senate at about 1:20 a.m. and continued at a lively pace until 3:45 a.m. when a vote was taken. The bill passed 28 to 7.

Overall spending on public education in Connecticut is nearly $10 billion, including $2 billion from the state. The $100 million increase represents 1 percent of $10 billion.

Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said she was optimistic that teachers’ voices had been heard but could not comment on the compromise. “I need to see the bill,” she said. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, said the bill appears to be “reasonable… from what I know. I’ve got to see a full copy.”

Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, who co-chairs the legislature’s education committee, said the compromise was reached early Sunday and that the education committee’s proposed substitute to Malloy’s original proposal — a revision he vowed in March to veto — had served as the final bill’s framework. “In terms of dollars,” she added, it’s “crunch time here.”

Stillman said the bill includes money for 1,000 additional preschool slots and that it also goes forward with other early childhood education initiatives for children in kindergarten through third grade.

The governor “always said he wanted meaningful reform,” Stillman said, “and I think that’s what this bill is about. … It’s a good start. This is the beginning of what I hope will be extensive education reform over the next few years.”

Malloy said the compromise agreement — which is more than 100 pages long — adheres to six principles that he set forth in December to guide education reform.

It expands access to high-quality early childhood education by adding 1,000 preschool slots. It launches the education commissioner’s network to intervene in failing schools and introduces a pilot program to enhance literacy for young students.

A major sticking point in the negotiations was whether the commissioner could bring in a charter school organization to help turn around a low-performing school. A summary of the bill provided by the administration at Malloy’s news conference says that “high-performing nonprofit school operators” will be able to operate six of the 25 schools.

Malloy also said the measure will broaden the availability of alternative school models — including charter schools, which have been a lightning rod for disagreement during the months of debate over education reform — and unleash innovation and remove red tape.

Although Malloy has been sharply at odds with the teachers unions over his original proposal to reform tenure and link it to teacher evaluations, on Monday night he said the compromise measure would make it possible to ensure — “definitely, thoughtfully and respectfully” — that the state’s public schools have the best teachers and principles.

The bill’s summary said the new evaluation system would be tested in pilot program in eight to 10 districts.

“Finally, I said we needed to put our money where our mouths are,” Malloy said, pointing to the additional money that will help the state target school districts with the greatest need.

Patrick Riccards, chief executive officer of the reform group ConnCAN, said: “For a long time now we’ve really done nothing to really reform education. While this doesn’t do everything we need, it is that step forward that we need to begin the process.”

Rae Ann Knopf, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, also called the bill “a great step forward.”

Malloy had asked for $22.9 million in new spending for an education commissioner’s network to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools, but the amended state budget provides $7.5 million. Malloy also proposed $13 million in new spending to recruit and develop teachers, but the budget provides $3.5 million for “talent development.”

Spending on early childhood education programs would increase by about $1 million over the budget approved in 2011 for the fiscal year that starts in July. Magnet schools also would get more money than budgeted last year, going from $235.4 million to $242.4 million.

The sweeping $123 million plan Malloy originally rolled out to reform education included increasing the number of preschool slots for poor children, improving teacher preparation, and pumping $50 million into education cost-sharing with $39.5 million of that earmarked for 30 low-performing districts.

A centerpiece of his plan was the commissioner’s network to transform up to 25 low-achieving schools in the next two years. Malloy proposed giving the education commissioner considerable latitude to bring in entities such as universities, non-profits, charter management organizations and other providers with proven school designs to help turn around the school.

He also called for limiting teacher union collective bargaining at the network schools to enable those schools to make changes — such as lengthening the school day or school year — more easily and quickly.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Malloy’s plan was his proposal to link tenure to a new teacher evaluation that depended partly on student performance and test scores. And while dismissals have been based on a teacher considered “incompetent,” Malloy proposed changing the standard to “ineffective.”

Legislators revised Malloy’s bill twice, first on March 26 when the education committee approved a substitute education bill and then two weeks ago when Democratic legislative leaders further revised it.

The education committee’s bill replaced Malloy’s plan to tie tenure to teacher evaluations with a plan to pilot the evaluation system and report back to the General Assembly in January 2013 on how the evaluations might be tied to tenure.

The substitute bill also called for reducing Malloy’s proposed increase in funding for charter schools; reducing funding for Malloy’s proposed commissioner’s network; and increasing pre-school slots.

Then, legislative leaders offered their own revision. It reined in the commissioner’s authority to turn around a low-performing school, eliminating the commissioner’s power to convert it to a state or local charter school or to put the school under the control of a private entity. The revised bill, in fact, eliminated the possibility of converting a turnaround school into a charter school.

While Malloy’s original bill proposed limiting collective bargaining in a network of low-performing schools, the Democratic leadership’s revision preserved regular contracts for teachers at network schools.

Critics said the changes would strip the education commissioner of the tools needed to turn around low-performing schools.

Courant Capitol bureau Chief Christopher Keating contributed to this story.

Link to article here.