Race to the Top: Reform bills approved by committee

A key legislative committee Thursday approved several major education bills designed to reshape Connecticut’s public schools and improve the state’s chances to win millions of dollars in federal school reform money.

The General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee approved bills that would expand high school graduation requirements, remove enrollment limits on charter schools, link teacher evaluations to student performance, and give parents a greater voice in school operations.

The bills are aligned with goals of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s incentive program to support innovative reforms in the nation’s public schools.

Connecticut put in an initial reform proposal earlier this year requesting $193 million of the federal stimulus money, but finished well out of the running when the U.S. Department of Education announced winners of the first round of grants this week.

Out of 40 states and the District of Columbia in the competition, only two states – Tennessee and Delaware – were picked from 16 finalists for the first awards. Tennessee won $500 million, Delaware $100 million.

Connecticut’s application was ranked 25th by federal reviewers, but state officials have expressed hope that a revised application, along with the passage of strong school reform laws, will significantly improve chances of winning in a second phase of the competition.

In Race to the Top, the Obama administration is dangling more than $4.3 billion in incentives to spur education reforms. With state budgets suffering through the nation’s slumping economy, states are making aggressive efforts to compete for the money.

Among the bills winning committee approval Thursday was a proposal to expand requirements for high school graduation, but the bill would take effect only if the state wins the federal stimulus grant, lawmakers said.

The bill would increase the number of required high school credits to 25, including additional coursework in math, science, health, foreign language and a senior demonstration project. The current graduation requirement is 20 credits.

Two other bills included proposals to give parents a voice in decisions on school operations in low-performing schools. One proposal, known as the “parent trigger,” was introduced by the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. That proposal would allow parents to vote to shake up failing schools and make major changes such as converting schools to charter schools.

The idea, however, has drawn opposition from teacher unions, school boards, school superintendents and others.

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, said the proposal would usurp the authority of school boards. “I don’t think the parent trigger is good public policy,” said Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

In addition to the “parent trigger,” the bill includes several other provisions designed to improve performance of some of the state’s poorest schools, many of which have large enrollments of low-income and minority children. Those children often lag far behind white and more affluent children. In Connecticut, that performance gap is larger than in most other states.

“People in each community are demanding we address our failing schools,” said state Rep. Jason Bartlett, D-Bethel. “It’s time to do something about the achievement gap.”