Legislators get message to reform state schools

An overflow crowd, including a parade of schoolchildren that marched past lawmakers, left little doubt Monday the General Assembly is under pressure to reform Connecticut's public schools this spring.

Dozens of spectators jammed a hearing room and hundreds of students, parents and educators filled the atrium of the Legislative Office Building while legislators heard hours of testimony on a dozen pending school reform bills.

Most speakers who appeared before the legislature's Education Committee said that fixing the state's lowest-performing schools is an urgent problem, but not everyone agreed how to do it.

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Students and teachers throng the Legislative Office Building atrium in support of school reform

"The reason this room is filled, the reason this building is filled is because there is such profound concern about the achievement gap in Connecticut," said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the Education Committee's co-chairman.

Many of the bills before the committee are designed to bolster the state's chances of winning millions of dollars in the Race to the Top competition, the Obama administration's incentive program to spur reform and improve lagging academic performance among low-income and minority children. Connecticut failed in its first attempt.

"The winds of school reform are starting to blow in the Land of Steady Habits," said Steven Adamowski, Hartford's superintendent of schools, one of a long line of speakers during a hearing that stretched well into the evening.

Adamowski backed proposals that would hold teachers and principals more accountable for student progress and that would give parents the right to petition to reorganize or even close failing schools.

State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan supported bills calling for high school reforms including tougher graduation requirements, online coursework and end-of-course examinations. He also supported a proposal to lift enrollment caps and allow expansion of charter schools, and he urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would give him authority to disband school boards in low-performing school districts where other interventions have failed.

The authority to reconstitute school boards would be used sparingly, but is crucial for saving failing schools--"another tool in the tool kit," he said.

School integration proponents, including attorneys for plaintiffs in the Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation case, urged support for a bill that would provide financial incentives to suburban school districts to enroll children from Hartford under the Open Choice program.

The program has been part of the state's effort to desegregate Hartford's mostly black and Hispanic public schools under a court order in the Sheff case, but enrollment has lagged, partly because suburban schools have been reluctant to take additional students. The current $2,500 per student state subsidy is "still woefully inadequate" as an incentive to enroll more children, said Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, which runs the Open Choice program.

This year, nearly 4,000 applicants applied for about 200 open seats in the program, he said.

Several speakers urged lawmakers to pass legislation bolstering support for charter schools, the experimental public schools that are free of most administrative and union rules.

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Francheska Calderon: College bound

"Charter schools deserve to be equally funded," said 18-year-old Francheska Calderon, a senior at Amistad Elm City High School, a New Haven charter school. As a student at charter schools since fifth grade, she improved academically and socially, she said, and now has been accepted at Providence College, the University of New Haven, the University of Connecticut and other schools.

Among the most controversial bills is a proposal that would revamp the state's school finance structure, calling for a system that would link school funding directly to each student, sending state aid and local tax support to whatever school the student attends - a magnet, a charter, a technical school or the local neighborhood school, for example.

That idea - allowing the money to follow the student - already has generated controversy and is opposed by teacher unions, school boards and others who fear it would drain money from regular public schools.

It has been aggressively promoted, however, by ConnCAN, a New Haven-based advocacy group that says it would make school funding more equitable by putting specialty schools such as charters on equal footing with traditional public schools. It also would bolster the state's chances in Race to the Top, ConnCAN says.

ConnCAN helped organize a rally that brought about 10 busloads of students, parents and teachers to the Capitol Monday.

During the hearing, lawmakers interrupted the testimony for several minutes to allow state Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, to lead a long line of students and parents - many of them charter school supporters - through the hearing room.

"That is a first - the first parade we've ever had through an Education Committee public hearing," said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, the committee co-chairman.