Parties near agreement on education reform bill

Lawmakers and representatives of education groups moved closer Thursday to crafting a bill designed to shake up Connecticut’s public schools and help the state qualify for millions of dollars in federal school reform funds.

Among other things, the bill would require more rigorous evaluations of teachers, a fast-track training program for principals and tougher graduation standards for students. A draft of the bill is expected by early next week.

Then comes the hard part, according to the bill’s chief sponsors.

They will have just a matter of days to persuade colleagues in the legislature to pass one of the most wide-ranging education reform bills in years. The legislative session ends May 6.

“It’s going to be difficult because some of the changes are so major,” state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said after a 3½-hour meeting of officials representing school administrators, teacher unions, school reformers and others.

Nevertheless, Fleischmann and Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairmen of the legislature’s Education Committee, remained hopeful that they could win support for a bill that is designed to improve the state’s chances to win as much as $175 million under the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition.

The bill weaves together several earlier pieces of legislation that the Education Committee adopted in an attempt to align state education policy with the goals of Race to the Top.

Connecticut is making a second attempt to win the stimulus funds after finishing well out of the running when the U.S. Department of Education announced winners of the first round of grants last month.

Of 40 states and the District of Columbia in the competition, 16 states were named finalists and only two – Tennessee and Delaware – were picked 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.

Gaffey and Fleischmann are still fine-tuning the language in the school reform bill and are awaiting estimates of the bill’s price tag. The major elements include:

  • An increase in high school graduation requirements, including additional credits in mathematics, science and foreign language. “This is long overdue,” Gaffey said.
  • A teacher evaluation system based in part on measurement of student progress. The evaluations also would take into account a range of other factors, including class size and student characteristics such as socioeconomic status and English language proficiency.
  • The removal of enrollment limits on charter schools.
  • A fast-track system for training and licensing school principals similar to the state’s long-running alternate route to certification system for teachers.
  • Improvement of the state’s data collection system to allow better measurement of student progress and teacher performance.

To craft the bill, Gaffey and Fleischmann brought together education groups who have often clashed over how to fix struggling schools. The education reform group known as ConnCAN, for example, has lobbied aggressively for charter schools, a position at odds with teacher unions, school boards and others who fear that charters will drain money from traditional public schools.

The various groups also had to tackle controversial issues such as linking teacher evaluations to student performance, an idea that has been met with skepticism by some teachers’ unions.

Alex Johnston, who heads ConnCAN and is a member of the group working on the reform bill, said after Thursday’s meeting that he is awaiting the bill’s final language but believes it will not be as far-reaching as he had hoped.

“We think the state needs to enact very aggressive reforms in order to be competitive” in Race to the Top, he said.

Gaffey said the proposed bill represents “a lot of compromise on some pretty controversial issues.” He said no one got everything they want. “There was sufficient angst throughout the process from everyone sitting at the table,” he said.