Hoping for federal aid, Rell signs sweeping education reform bill

Hoping for a second chance at millions of dollars in federal stimulus money for school reform, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has signed into law a massive education bill.

“We’re moving in one direction and one direction only and that’s to the top,” she said during a bill signing ceremony at Hockanum School in East Hartford. “We’ve all been talking about this for the past couple of years. Now we’re going to do it.”

gaffey and rell, 5-26-10

Sen. Thomas Gaffey, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, congratulates Gov. M. Jodi Rell at the signing of the education reform bill (Jacqueline Rabe)

The new law is aimed at transforming the education system in hopes of strengthening the state’s chances of winning some of the $4.3 billion in federal Race to the Top dollars.

So far, only Tennessee and Delaware have been given grants totaling $600 million during a first round of awards announced by the U.S. Department of Education in March.

Of the 40 states and the District of Columbia that applied in the first round, Connecticut’s application was ranked 25th by federal reviewers. It is expected that 10 to 15 states will win grants in the second round.

Whether the state wins up to $175 million won’t be known until late August or early September, but lawmakers and educators said this law significantly improves the chances.

“Our race to the top application will probably be a stronger contender now,” Department of Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said. “You don’t get an opportunity like this very often.”

Connecticut’s new law requires teacher evaluations based partly on student performance as well as attendance, class size and student mobility.

The law also expands graduation standards by requiring students acquire 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 reforms also ease restrictions on charter schools, create a fast-track system for training and licensing school principals and revamp the state’s education data collection system.

In addition, the bill requires 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.

“Nothing like putting on a little pressure, right commissioner?” joked Rell, adding she is sure the state Department of Education will meet the challenge. “The standards are higher for everyone.”

An unlikely coalition crafted the bill, including the state’s two major teachers’ unions, the superintendents’ association, administrators’ association and the school reform group ConnCAN.

ConnCAN’s advocacy for charter schools was at odds with teacher unions, and the group also was strongly critical of the initial Race to the Top application prepared by McQuillan.

In a handful of states such as Massachusetts, Louisiana and Colorado, school reform legislation has failed to win union endorsements – something lawmakers believe will be critical as the U.S. Department of Education judges the next Race to the Top applications.

The legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus also was involved in the effort, pushing legislation known as the Achievement Gap bill aimed at turning around failing schools, including provisions to give parents more authority to fix those schools.

Rep. Jason W. Bartlett, D-Bethel, a member of the caucus, said during an interview everyone is happy.

“This is the most comprehensive bill ever done and may be the only opportunity for us to ever do such a sweeping reform,” he said.

The House debated the package for seven hours, approving it just before 3 a.m. on the final day of the legislative session. Later that day, only hours before the deadline, the Senate approved the bill.

Some lawmakers have questioned 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.

Rell said if the state isn’t awarded the federal dollars, it will still be money well spent by the state.

During an interview following the bill signing ceremony, she said “we’re going to have to spend this money anyway, but federal dollars absolutely would help.”