Major education changes will have to wait until next year

In a General Assembly session that will be remembered for some major legislation–starting with a budget package that closed a $3.67 billion deficit–a lack of action in one area left advocates disappointed: Major education reforms were put off for another time despite widespread acknowledgment that the state’s education system is broken.

“At about 10 o’clock last night, I just had to throw my hands up in the air and admit defeat,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the co-chairman of the Education Committee, who had been hoping to bring out a measure that would require every district to implement a teacher performance evaluation in two school years.

As a result, changes to the so-called “last-in, first out” policy that governs layoffs in many districts and results in the newest teachers being most vulnerable, could be delayed for years.

Other major education reforms, including revising the school finance system, improving the state-run vocational high schools, reducing the age disparity in kindergarten by increasing the school entrance age and expanding access to early education will also have to wait until at least next year.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy talked a lot about education during last year’s campaign, and in his budget address to the legislature in February dedicated one-quarter of his time to talking about education reforms. But he has repeatedly said it would be too ambitious to tackle education during this year’s five-month legislative session, as closing a historic budget deficit and reorganizing state government would dominate his time.

“As much progress as we’ve made, in some ways our work has just begun. Two things will dominate my time over the next few months: jobs and education,” Malloy told legislators in a speech to a joint session shortly after the closing bell. “I hope education reform will be the focus of the 2012 legislative session.”

“Next year” has been Malloy’s standard answer when asked about major education reform, but the lack of action this year frustrated education advocates.

“Every year we wait to act is a year we have lost for a child’s education,” Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “We need to get serious about education. I am frustrated.”

Holder-Winfield strongly urged legislators to act this year, and pushed for legislation addressing how schools are funded in hopes to get some changes.

But Democratic leadership decided to hold off on reforming school financing and all the other major initiatives, opting for the consolation prize often given at the State Capitol: a study group.

“We need to figure out way to help our schools,” said Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan of Meriden. “We’re all open to some changes and I look forward to new laws. … I want to work with everybody to see what’s best for the kids. So let’s figure it out.”

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield said these problems have long been discussed, what’s missing is action.

“Leadership is far too timid on those important education reforms,” he said. “We could have made significant progress this year.”

Legislators did pass some bills aimed at helping the state land new federal Race to the Top money for early childhood education to the governor’s desk. The bills provide funding for preschool teachers to earn degrees, begin testing kindergarten students on their reading and study a proposed reorganization of early childhood agencies.

But much of the legislature’s time was focused on controversial issues in other areas, including mandatory paid sick time for employees, decriminalization of marijuana, allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges, expanding the rights of transgender people and approving a major reconstruction of the UConn Health Center.

“We can get to all the controversial bills but we cant get to education? Really?” said Holder-Winfield, while standing on the floor of the House of Representatives in the closing hours before adjournment for the year. “I think everyone here is going to go out and campaign about education, while it’s not something we get to year after year.”

Malloy has promised he will tackle the issues facing education next year, and Holder-Winfield and Fleischmann can’t wait.

“I am frustrated we are not moving faster, but I think next year will be an important year for education,” Fleischmann said. “These tasks forces are laying the ground work. So we are on the right path.”

The lack of action on education issues has drawn criticism from editorial boards and education reform groups. The fact that the state’s top education job has been vacant during the entire legislative session hasn’t helped.

“We are not making progress,” said Alex Johnston, executive director of the New Haven-based education reform group ConnCAN. “What do we think is going to happen in Bridgeport, Hartford and other districts across the state while we wait another year?”

“We can’t wait any longer. We are the land of steady habits here,” Gwen Samuel, leader of Connecticut Parents Union which represents parents from urban districts, said during a recent interview.

In addition to holding off on moving forward with new reforms this year, legislators have also overwhelmingly voted to delay implementing the expensive high school reforms they passed last year.

“We can’t look at this legislative session and feel good about what we have done for education, “said Johnston.