By Kathleen Megan
Published by The Hartford Courant, May 3, 2012
The leaders of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus spoke out Thursday about education reform, calling for legislation that gives the education commissioner a strong hand and ample flexibility to turn around low-performing schools.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, chairman of the caucus, said the group supports giving the commissioner broad authority to reconstitute a low-achieving school. The group also wants the commissioner to be able to convert a troubled school into a state or local charter school and to be able to put the school under the control of a non-profit entity. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy originally proposed similar measures, but subsequent working versions of the legislation have reined in the commissioner’s power.
The 22-member caucus detailed its position as members of Malloy’s administration and Democratic legislative leaders continue to negotiate to reach an agreement on a reform bill before the session ends May 9.
Holder-Winfield said it was important for the caucus to put its positions on record so that if the final bill now being negotiated differs greatly from caucus positions, “and we can’t support it, the people who are in those rooms making those decisions know that now.”
Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior adviser, said the administration shares “a lot of agreement across the board” with the caucus.
Holder-Winfield said the caucus did not attempt to produce a plan that “lined up with the governor. We got in the room as representatives of urban communities, and decided by consensus what we thought would be best moving forward on education reform.”
He said that some of the caucus’s positions mirror those in the governor’s bill, but others track proposed revisions to the bill.
Two influential members of the caucus said they were surprised the caucus held a news conference. Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, and Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, who co-chair the appropriations committee and have been involved in the negotiations, said they both asked caucus members to wait until the education bill was completed before coming forward with a position.
“We had indicated that a number of their concerns already were addressed in some of the later versions of the bill that they hadn’t seen,” Harp said, “and we really tried to ask them to wait until they could see the full bill before moving forward.”
Harp said, “We think they will be happy with some of what they see” in the next version of the bill, “but there are some things they probably are not going to be happy with.”
Walker and Harp did not divulge details of the new bill, nor did they say when the bill would be ready. Asked about the role of charter schools in the new bill and collective bargaining in network schools, Harp said those issues remain “sticking points.”
Holder-Winfield said it had become increasingly important for the caucus to “voice what we feel needs to happen. … It would not make a lot of sense if the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus didn’t have a voice on this.”
The caucus also called for the use of so-called “skinny contracts” at low-performing network schools that would provide for limited “impact” bargaining on specific issues that might change at the schools, such as the length of the school day or school year.
Malloy originally proposed limiting collective bargaining for teachers at turnaround schools, to give the schools greater ability to make changes quickly.
The caucus also said teachers should be told how the school will change and be given the chance to remain or go to another school in the district.
A revision of the bill outlined last week would not allow the commissioner to reconstitute a low-achieving school by putting it under a private entity and would eliminate the possibility of converting a turnaround school into a charter school. It also would preserve regular contracts for teachers at network schools.
The caucus did not address Malloy’s controversial proposal to link teacher evaluations with tenure or certification. Rep. Kelvin Roldan, D-Hartford, a caucus member, said caucus members’ opinions varied on that point.
Michael Sharpe, chief executive officer of Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford and president of the Connecticut Charter School Network, said the caucus’s decision to take a stand on reform now “makes a huge difference because I think there is an impasse here. Everyone is saying, ‘How can we get by this impasse?’”
When “a respected group like the caucus” comes out with its position, Sharpe said, “I think that allows people to move off the dime and make some decisions.” He also praised the caucus’s push to include charter schools as an option for turnaround schools.
Rae Ann Knopf, executive director for the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a group that has supported Malloy’s reform proposals, said: “How can you push back on the leaders of the people in these communities that are struggling with these issues? How can you say to them, they don’t know what’s best?”
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