Education reforms clear Senate on bipartisan vote

The Senate passed a sweeping education reform bill early Tuesday, the only opposition coming from Republican legislators who complained of the last-minute release of the compromise, saying no one should be voting on a bill they have not had a chance to read.

“This is dereliction of duty,” said Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen.

Democratic leadership released the 185-page compromise bill just before midnight, and the Senate approved the bill at 3:45 a.m. in a 28-7 vote, with half the GOP minority joining 21 Democrats in support. One Democrat was absent.


Sen. Andrea Stillman, co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, introduces the bill at 1:30 a.m. Leaders of the teachers’ union read over the language in the upper Senate gallery.

Sen. Stephen Cassano, D-Manchester, said he was fine with getting the bill so late.

“That is the process of the building… We have faith” in our leadership, he said. “We have been getting input [this whole legislative session]. This isn’t something that just happened.”

Democratic legislators hailed the bill — which includes several components Republican legislators said they support — as a landmark reform package and huge compromise. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s original bill had pinned them between their Democratic governor and teacher unions.

Mary Loftus Levine, the head of the state’s largest teachers union, read through the bill as the Senate wrapped up. She said has “only minor concerns” with the new bill. One concern is that if a teacher is not evaluated, the teacher could be penalized.

“Teachers get a scar if administrators don’t do their job,” she said.

Highlights of the bill include:

  • An additional 1,000 preschool seats in high-quality state programs. Last school year, 6,400 students — or 16 percent — showed up to kindergarten having spent no time in a preschool. Half were from the state’s 19 poorest districts, reports the State Department of Education. Connecticut spends about $85 million for state-funded preschool programs in 2011, reaching 10 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds. This bill will boost spending by $6.8 million a year.
  • Schools will be graded on a five-tier scale based on standardized test scores. The lowest-performing districts will be overseen by the State Department of Education and a new superintendent or “special master” could be selected by the commissioner. The commissioner can also require schools in these districts to provide preschool, summer school, extended school hours or professional development. An additional $39.5 million is available for these districts that make certain reforms.
  • The controversial changes Malloy had proposed to existing union contracts in the worst-off schools were largely stripped from the bill. He had wanted to bypass legal challenges when teachers contested certain changes at the school. He also wanted to allow for the option when turning around a school to have every teacher reapply for their job and only retain the best teachers. The new bill reads: “Nothing in this section shall alter the collective bargaining agreements… [The state] shall negotiate with respect to salaries, hours and other conditions of employment of such turnaround plans.” A “turnaround committee” — half appointed by the teachers’ union and the other half by school officials — will develop changes to move forward with. If the panel cannot reach an agreement, or the commissioner does not deem the plan significant enough, the commissioner “in consultation with teachers” will develop a plan. Malloy had said before the debate that “Whatever is done, the greatest concern, time and energy [will be] to having a consensus. It will be. But ultimately the commissioner needs to move forward and turn those low-performing schools around.”
  • An annual reading assessment will be developed by Jan. 1 for students in kindergarten through Grade 3. The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus had proposed that students who could not read be held back in Grade 3 until they could. That did not make it into the final bill because of cost concerns. The bill also requires elementary teachers to take a reading instruction exam whose results will be reported to the state. “Our kids are not reading… This will fix that,” said Sen. Toni Harp, Democratic co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee who helped write the bill. In her hometown of New Haven, only half of the third grade students were proficient in reading last year. By Grade 8 only 67 percent were proficient.
  • The proposal to have teachers receive numerous “exemplary” or “proficient” evaluations to earn and keep their tenure was also scaled back. The deal outlined Monday night requires that they be graded as “effective” to earn tenure, and they will have to be graded as “ineffective” to lose tenure. There is no link between certification, pay and the evaluations.
  • In a requirement to go into effect in three years, those in teacher preparation programs will have to spend four semesters in a classroom. The current requirement is one semester.
  • Funding for charter schools will increase to $10,500 per student in the coming school year, increasing to $11,500 by 2013-14. Funding for new charter schools was largely stripped from the budget deal, but when new charters do open over the next three years two must be dedicated to enrolling more English-language learning students.

Sen. Andrea Stillman, co-chairwoman of the Education Committee, said while this is not a perfect bill it is a start.

“The sad truth is the current system has failed,” the Waterford Democrat said. “We have not attempted something as sweeping as this bill… This is really just the beginning.”

Loftus Levine, the union leader, said the bill at first glance seems to help turnaround the education system.

“I think that it will work really well because teachers are going to have a voice,” she said. “It’s fair.”

The bill is expected to be approved in the House before Wednesday at midnight when the legislative session adjourns.

The governor announced the compromise at a 10 p.m. press conference.

Text of the governor’s remarks on compromise

Final roll call

Democrats: 21 yes, 0 no, 1 absent (Edith Prague)

Republicans: 7 yes, 7 no, 0 absent.