Broad education reform bill passed by Senate, sent to House

The state Senate voted Friday for a sweeping overhaul of Connecticut’s public schools, approving a bill designed to help the state qualify for millions of dollars in federal school reform funds.

Among other things, the bill calls for tougher graduation standards, a fast-track training program for principals, an expansion of charter schools and a system that draws a more direct link between teacher evaluations and student performance.

The proposals would lead to some of the most sweeping changes in the state’s public schools in decades as the state tries to strengthen its chances for up to $175 million under Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion incentive program to spur education reforms.

“This is really an historical moment,” state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Branford, said during a lengthy debate on the Senate floor. “Ten years ago you would never have seen a bill like this.”

Fleischmann and Gaffey 5-1-10

State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, left, and Sen. Thomas Gaffey, co-chairs of the Education Committee, confer as the Senate debates reform bill.

The Senate voted 32-3 to approve the bill. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives, where it still faces hurdles, including concerns over its cost.

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.

“This bill gives Connecticut the kick we need to sprint to the finish line and lean to the tape in round two,” said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, a chief architect of the bill along with state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. The two are co-chairmen of the legislature’s Education Committee.

Some officials have questioned whether the bill goes far enough to win a Race to the Top grant, but many described it as a major step.

The legislation “offers a bold plan to fundamentally reshape our public high schools and middle schools,” said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan. “It is a significant move forward for our state.”

The new graduation requirements would include additional credits in mathematics, science and foreign language. Starting with the class of 2018, students also would be required to complete a senior project and pass graduation exams in algebra, geometry, biology, American history and English.

The tougher standards are crucial, Gaffey said. “If our students are going to be prepared to work in a global economy, we have to make sure our students are better prepared . . . particularly in science and mathematics,” he said.

The bill also removes enrollment limits on charter schools, the experimental schools that are free of many of the usual central office and union rules.

In addition, it calls for an overhaul of the state’s education data collection system to allow more accurate measurement of teacher performance and student progress.

Some officials expressed concern over potential costs, such as hiring new teachers or providing additional support for students to meet expanded graduation requirements. “That is not going to be a small investment,” said Patrice McCarthy, deputy director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

The bill could require the hiring of as many as 380 additional teachers statewide at a cost of nearly $21 million, according to an estimate by the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Even if the state qualifies for federal money under Race to the Top, lawmakers should consider the ongoing costs for local school districts after the stimulus funds run out, McCarthy said.

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, echoed that concern, saying there is no guarantee that the reforms can be supported over the long run. “I have a concern about chasing money in Washington,” he said. “States are in a bind right now.”

Kissel was one of three senators opposing the bill, along with Anthony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, and Sam Caligiuri, R-Waterbury.

The reform bill was crafted by a working group of legislators, teacher unions, school administrators, education reform advocates and others – groups whose views sometimes clashed.

Among the more controversial provisions is the proposal to link teacher evaluations with student performance. The idea has been strongly supported by the school reform group ConnCAN but has been met with skepticism by some local teachers’ unions.

Nevertheless, the bill won the endorsement of the state’s two major teachers’ unions, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) and the American Federation of Teachers – Connecticut.

Under the bill, schools would consider student performance in teacher evaluations but would also take into account other factors, including class size, absenteeism, and student characteristics such as socioeconomic status, mobility and English language proficiency.

“We are satisfied that multiple indicators of academic growth gives latitude . . . to recognize areas other than test scores” in evaluating teachers, said Mark Waxenberg, a lobbyist for CEA.

ConnCAN, however, had hoped the bill would include a stronger link between teacher evaluations and student progress, said Alex Johnston, the group’s chief executive order.

The bill “is not as far-reaching” as earlier versions of the legislation, Johnston said. It does not, for example, make student performance the primary factor in evaluations or specify how much emphasis it should be given, he said.

Nevertheless, ConnCAN pledged to work to pass the legislation.

“Our basic view is this bill certainly is a positive step forward,” Johnston said. “It ought to be passed.” As for Race to the Top, however, the bill may fall short, he said. “We may need to continue to strengthen things to be competitive,” he said.

Some lawmakers introduced an amendment to strengthen the wording of the teacher evaluation provision, proposing to make student performance a “significant factor” in evaluations, but the Senate defeated the amendment.