Business group launches campaign for sweeping education reform

It seems an unlikely scenario: A group of influential business leaders convening at the state Capitol to announce a campaign to lobby state lawmakers to spend more money. But that was the scene Tuesday as the Connecticut Council for Education Reform launched a drive for its package of education reforms.

“Gosh, I know it seems funny we want to spend more money, but businesses know a good investment when they see it,” said Shana Kennedy-Salchow, the interim executive director of the non-profit group. “We can’t continue down this same path. We are failing too many children.”

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Business leaders announce campaign for education reforms next to charts highlighting the state’s problems

And if the giant charts the council used to illustrate Connecticut’s education problems–including the worst-in-the-nation achievement gap for minority students–didn’t make their case, the latest state high-school aptitude tests scores soon bolstered the argument.

Minutes after the council’s news conference ended, the State Department of Education released the results of math, reading and science tests showing that in each subject, less than half of the high school students met the goal.

“This is not acceptable for students. This not acceptable for parents or for the states business and economic well being,” said Payton R. Paterson, the leader of the group and the former chief executive of New Alliance Bank in the Hartford region. “It is safe to say the achievement gap affects all of us.”

Connecticut has for years had one of the largest achievement gaps in the U.S. because minority students and those from low-income families routinely score below their white and more affluent classmates on U.S. Department of Education reading and mathematics tests. And figures released last month by the U.S. DOE show the problem remains.

Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell convened a panel of business leaders last year to help address the problem. That group, the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, proposed a series of reforms in a report issued last October. Many of the members of the commission are now involved in the non-profit council, and they’re aiming to get those proposals implemented.

“We felt compelled to keep the momentum going to making our recommendations a reality,” said Steven Simmons, the former commission’s leader and a cable television executive.

Even with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promising to focus on education in next year’s legislative session, the council’s list of 65 “essential” reforms is ambitious. The group wants to have teacher pay and tenure decisions based on student performance, have longer schools days and school years, require students pass a set of tests to receive a diploma, have school funding follow the student to whatever school they attend, including charter and magnet schools, and provide preschool to every student.

“Push back is a way of life. … We need to step back and take a look at what’s working and what’s not,” said Ramani Ayer, the retired chief executive of the The Hartford.

Teacher unions have long been leery of many of the initiatives.

Ray Rossomando, the legislative liaison for the the state’s largest teachers union, wrote in a statement he is disappointed in the panel’s recommendations.

“It is unfortunate that this group of CEOs aspires to reform education without including practitioners. That’s like promising to end cancer without consulting doctors,” he wrote, adding that his analysis of the data from the U.S. DOE indicates “Connecticut schools are outpacing the nation in school improvement.”

The areas the commission is recommending more be invested include:

  • Full-day kindergarten
  • Universal preschool
  • More remediation for 40,000 students
  • Longer school days and an extended school year
  • More subsidies for preschool for low-income students
  • Programs to attract highly qualified teachers in defined shortage areas.

The cost of building the facilities for the 5,600 children from low-income families to go to preschool alone is estimated to cost $211 million and an additional $40.2 million a year to run the programs, according to a report released earlier this week by the state Department of Education.

But Simmons said these investments are essential.

“The business community has a huge interest in an educated workforce. I think they are going to step up when they see some movement in the right direction,” he said.