By Michelle Tuccitto Sullo

NEW HAVEN >> A nonprofit education organization is hoping to gain legislative support for several of its objectives for 2014, such as the creation of more preschool opportunities for children in low-income families.

The New Haven-based Connecticut Council for Education Reform, which works to improve academic outcomes for students statewide, is pursuing five recommendations for the upcoming legislative session.

One proposal is to finance 500 to 1,000 new preschool slots for low-income children in the 2014-15 budget year.

“We estimate there are about 6,500 children who could use pre-K slots that don’t exist,” said Jeffrey Villar, council executive director and a former superintendent of schools in Rocky Hill and Windsor.

“We know preschool makes a significant impact on students and helps close the achievement gap” between children from low-income families and their peers.

Nicki Perkins, program manager for the council, said this proposal is estimated to cost about $8 million. According to Perkins, this is the only proposal that seeks additional funds, as the group’s other recommendations are policy-related.

The group, which met this week with the Register editorial board, also wants lawmakers to remove some conditions for determining who is a “highly qualified” superintendent of schools candidate, and allow the state commissioner of education to make that judgment and be able to waive some certification qualifications.

According to Villar, this can be an issue when an out-of-state superintendent seeks to apply for a position in Connecticut, but doesn’t have the state’s exact course requirements.

The group would like the commissioner of education to be able to waive certain requirements if an out-of-state candidate has extensive experience.

“This would eliminate barriers for out-of-state candidates,” Villar said. “Connecticut should roll out the red carpet, rather than have bureaucratic barriers.

“If a school district leader has six or seven years of experience outside of Connecticut, they have demonstrated they can do the job — why make them take more college courses? Look at them as an individual,” he added.

By Oct. 1, the council would like to have all non-school choice grants reviewed for opportunities to reallocate funds to pay for extended learning, such as tutoring, in low-performing school districts.

“We want accountability for dollars spent, and to show that funding is helping to improve student achievement,” Villar said.

The council also wants lawmakers to jump-start the preschool-to-age 20 longitudinal data project, which is designed to track students’ educational progress and success. The group wants a statutory deadline of fiscal year 2015 for creating an online dashboard where the public can access this data easily.

According to Villar, the organization’s first priority is to protect education reforms that passed through legislation in 2012 and 2013.

Villar cited the new educator evaluation program, or Connecticut’s System for Educator Evaluation and Development; the formation of the Commissioner’s Network, which aims to improve low-performing schools; and the Alliance District program, which increases education cost sharing for low-performing districts, as examples.

“The key to a more prosperous future for our state is providing every single child with a world-class education,” Villar said. “That’s why we need to sustain the reform efforts that began in 2012, and we need to support their successful implementation. That means no de-funding. No delays.”

Villar plans to meet with members of the General Assembly’s Education Committee to discuss the group’s recommendations.

“It is a tough budget year,” Villar said. “Most of our agenda does not have a costly price tag.”

State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who is on the Education Committee, said lawmakers have been looking at increasing preschool opportunities.

“That will be part of the effort, but it depends on where the state is fiscally,” Holder-Winfield said. “Whether or not the state can make it happen, it is good that outside groups are pushing for it.”

“I think some of the things in their proposal make sense, like the tutoring, but some other ideas need discussion,” Holder-Winfield said, referring to the superintendent certification requirements, for example. “Requirements are in place for a reason.”

State Rep. Andrew Fleisch­mann, D-West Hartford, House chairman of the Education Committee, said he thinks the council’s recommendations are reasonable.

“They support expanding preschool opportunities, and I couldn’t agree more,” Fleisch­mann said. “It will be challenging to find dollars, but it is the right thing to do.”

“If we can have strong alternative routes to certification for highly qualified people, it is good and can help us get more top-notch people.”


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Also posted on The Middletown Press and The Register Citizen.