Spurred by the lure of federal aid, House approves major education reforms

A sweeping education bill that calls for tougher high school standards, a more demanding evaluation system for teachers and a greater voice for parents in school governance won approval in the state House of Representatives early today.

After some political maneuvering, lawmakers combined elements of two separate education bills into a single landmark bill that would result in the most significant reforms of public schools in decades.

The legislation now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Thomas Gaffey, one of the chief architects of the legislation, expected it to pass.

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State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the Education Committee, during debate on a major reform bill (Jacqueline Rabe)

The reforms, including an expansion of experimental charter schools, were spurred in large part by the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, a competition for federal stimulus funds to promote school innovation. Connecticut could qualify for up to $175 million.

“I really think we’ve got a great shot now,” Gaffey said. “We are pumped about this.”

After nearly seven hours of debate, the House approved the bill 106-38.

“It’s a great moment,” said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman with Gaffey of the General Assembly’s Education Committee.

The legislation would:

  • Increase high school graduation requirements, requiring 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.
  • Revamp the state’s data collection system to allow better measurement of student progress and teacher performance.
  • Establish a teacher evaluation system that links teacher performance more directly with 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.
  • Remove enrollment limits on charter schools, the experimental schools that are free of many of the usual central office and union rules.
  • Create a fast-track system for training and licensing school principals similar to the state’s long-running alternate route to certification system for teachers.
  • Require low-performing schools to establish governance councils of parents, teachers, and community leaders with the authority to recommend a complete overhaul of schools that consistently fail to improve.
  • Give the State Board of Education the authority to disband local boards of education in districts that consistently fail to show progress. Officials have said the step would be used only as a last resort.

Connecticut is making a second attempt to win the Race to the Top 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.

Some lawmakers objected to the potential cost of the reforms, saying there is no guarantee Connecticut will win the stimulus funds.

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. Another $7 million is projected in training costs related to the new teacher evaluation program.

“We’re being asked to commit approximately $30 million to a competition that may not go our way,” said state Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, R-Old Saybrook.

State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said she is concerned that the more rigorous graduation requirements could force more students to drop out, especially those who are struggling academically. “To me, adding more credits does not address that population,” she said.

The provision requiring low-performing schools to form governance councils was part of an earlier bill sponsored by the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. The inclusion of parents on those councils was a central element of that bill, which was aimed at closing the achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority students lagging behind white and more affluent classmates.

That bill had been approved by the House last week but was combined with a Senate bill on Race to the Top as lawmakers raced to complete the reform package before the legislative session ends at midnight tonight.

“I don’t know of another time when we’ve done as much education reform in Connecticut as we’ve done tonight,” said state Rep. Jason Bartlett, D-Bethel, a sponsor of the achievement gap bill. “Hope and opportunity for kids has been strengthened, and I’m proud of what we’ve done.”

State Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, said the provisions in achievement gap bill strengthen the state’s case for the Race to the Top funds.

“This gives parents the opportunity at the table with teachers to turn around failing schools,” said McCrory, who called the reforms “the right thing to do.”