State Board criticizes revised education reform bill

State Board of Education members angrily criticized lawmakers’ attempts to scale back a major education reform bill, saying Wednesday that the watered-down bill could stall the effort to fix the state’s worst schools.

“I’ve watched this process … with real dismay,” board Chairman Allan Taylor said of changes made last week by the legislature’s Education and Appropriations committees to limit a sweeping reform package proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The revisions also drew criticism from Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who said that aside from reducing funding for the bill, the committees also stripped it of some of its key elements, such as provisions linking teacher evaluations to decisions on tenure.

In addition, Pryor said the reduction of funding in a proposal aimed at low-performing districts and the removal of specific strategies to help those districts could weaken the state’s chances for a waiver of some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Without that framework, such as provisions for assembling high-quality teaching staffs or lengthening the school day or school year, “it’s harder to make the case to the federal government we have a system to turn around low-performing schools,” Pryor said.

Despite the changes in the bill, Pryor and others are engaged with lawmakers in discussions to reshape the reform package. Pryor remains hopeful that some of the key elements will be restored.

“The deal itself is a work in progress,” he told the state board. “At present, there are some real holes in the bill.”

Among other changes, the legislative committees also removed a proposal that would have paid for an additional 275 slots in public charter schools, reduced proposed funding to comply with the Sheff vs. O’Neill court order to reduce racial isolation in Hartford schools and sharply cut back a plan for various teacher training and leadership programs.

The bill, however, preserved or bolstered some elements of the original proposal, including the addition of 1,000 new slots in preschool programs, the creation of a quality rating system for early childhood programs and new funding for agricultural science schools, Pryor told the board.

Malloy’s reform proposals have generated intense debate, drawing support from various education and business organizations but raising objections from teachers’ organizations, including the state’s two major teachers’ unions. In particular, the unions oppose the effort to link a teacher evaluation system to tenure.

The unions were part of a statewide committee that recommended changes to the teacher evaluation process, including linking evaluations to student progress, but union officials told legislators that teachers fear that the process could lead to abuses and that the system needs fine-tuning. The Education Committee agreed to delay linking tenure to evaluation until the evaluation system can be put in place and tested.

“For an evaluation system to work there needs to be buy-in from teachers and administrators,” said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the Education Committee. “The way to give people confidence is to put it in motion.”

He said the concern by state board members and others is understandable because much of the public discussion and reporting “has mischaracterized the bill.”

The evaluation system approved by the Education Committee is the same as the one proposed by the governor but is “a framework and nothing more,” Fleischmann said. “The administration was seeking to skip a few critical steps.”

He also said the committee changed some of the language on strategies for turning around struggling schools because “it was not clear we have the power to simply abrogate [union] contracts” affecting those schools.

Fleischmann predicted the legislation will continue to evolve in discussions between lawmakers and the administration, saying the bill keeps the momentum for reform going. “I’m confident we’ll work with the administration to develop a bill we can pass through both chambers and have the governor sign.”

Nevertheless, Taylor, the state board chairman, criticized the revised bill. In particular, he said he was disappointed by the reaction to the proposed evaluation system. The proposal, he said, represents “a vision of an empowered profession, [but] somehow in this conversation it’s turned into a threat, and I don’t understand it and I’m angry about it.”

Board member Patricia Luke said she, too, was angered at the revisions. “When I realized what they had done to the bill, all I could say was it’s just the same old story,” she said. “It’s picking around the edges and thinking we’ll make a difference…It didn’t work before. It’s not going to work now.”

As the board was meeting Wednesday, a coalition of education and business organizations held a separate news conference to offer recommendations on how to improve the reform bill.

Six organizations issued a joint statement saying the revised bill “lacks urgency and will not bring about the bold reforms Connecticut must undertake if we are to close our worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps and prepare all students to participate in the 21st century economy.”

The coalition recommended several changes, including restoring original provisions on teacher and principal evaluation. It said evaluation results “must be used to shape educator growth and support, and teachers ought to show consistent satisfactory ratings in order to obtain and maintain tenure.”

The coalition also called on legislators to restore the bill’s original framework for helping the state’s lowest-performing schools, saying the legislation should “include significant flexibility in redesigning local contracts” to help teachers and principals improve student achievement.

The coalition includes the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, the Connecticut Association of Schools, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), the Connecticut Council for Education Reform and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.