Hartford crowd warms to Malloy’s education plan

Hartford -- Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's sweeping proposal to reshape Connecticut's public schools has run into plenty of hostile opposition, but the governor found a friendly audience Monday for his pitch to salvage the plan.

Malloy got a warm reception from parents, community leaders and others in Hartford, a city all too familiar with the alarming achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority children lagging behind white or more affluent classmates.

Several members of the audience asked the governor how they could help support his proposals.

"We are here this evening because our community is in crisis ... Our children are hurting," said state Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, a supporter of the governor's reform plan, much of which is designed to turn around the state's lowest-performing school districts.

Those districts, in particular, "are in an advanced state of failure," Malloy told about 100 people at Faith Congregational Church, the oldest black church in Hartford, the latest stop on a tour of towns and cities across Connecticut to build support for his proposals.

Malloy's original plan called for more rigorous evaluations of teachers and principals, financial aid for struggling schools, an expansion of preschool slots, more support for charter schools and broad authority for the state education commissioner to intervene in low-performing schools.

In his remarks Monday, the governor cited dismal academic performance and dropout rates of 40 percent or more in the state's largest cities as evidence of the urgency for reform. In Hartford, for example, barely 10 percent of high school sophomores met the state goal in reading on a statewide test last year, he said.

Legislative committees, however, have rewritten the original legislation, reducing the amount of funding proposed for low-performing districts, for example, and removing provisions that would have linked teacher evaluations to decisions on pay and tenure.

Some of the strongest opposition to Malloy's reforms has come from teacher unions, many of whose members have expressed concern, in particular, about the proposal to link evaluations to pay and tenure.

The governor remains in talks with lawmakers and is seeking to restore some of the bill's key elements, but he repeated his warning that he will not support a reform bill that has been substantially watered down.  "If it passed in its present form ... I would veto it," he said.

Malloy expressed disappointment that his original proposals did not receive broader support from lawmakers, including some who represent the state's lowest-performing districts. "We are not speaking with one voice -- those of us who care about turning this situation around. I think that is discouraging, disheartening and destructive," he said.

Leo Canty, an official with the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut, attended Monday's forum and said he is hopeful a compromise can be reached. "The governor definitely has strong opinions, and we have some, too," he said. "This is a very fluid and dynamic moment. We'll know in the next couple of days whether there is some kind of agreement."

The governor's remarks struck a chord in a city that for years has been home to some of the state's most troubled schools.

Benjamin Foster, chairman of the education committee of the State Conference of NAACP Branches, said the organization has not taken a formal stance on the legislation but added, "We are encouraged by the commitment of the governor to bring about change."

The Rev. Stephen W. Camp, senior pastor at Faith Congregational Church, said public education is failing too many children. He said the reforms should preserve teacher bargaining rights, include an appropriate role for parents, provide a fair evaluation system for educators, support a preschool system "that offers every child a fighting chance," and distribute funds equitably.

"My city's children deserve the same outcome as the child from every suburban town, and it should be the priority of the state," Camp said.