Parents would have the authority to shake up or even close failing public schools in Connecticut under a proposal outlined by members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus Thursday.

That idea and others, including income tax breaks for teachers who work longer hours in troubled schools, are intended to take on the chronic problem of lagging academic performance among many low-income and minority children.

That gap shows up on exams such as the fourth-grade Connecticut Mastery Test, where 35 percent of black children and 31 percent of Hispanic children met the state mathematics goal last year, compared with 73 percent of white children. The gap between low-income and wealthier children in Connecticut on mathematics and reading tests in the National Assessment of Educational Progress is the largest among the 50 states.

“We have the worst achievement gap in the country, and we have 185 failing schools,” said state Rep. Jason Bartlett, D-Bethel, referring to schools failing to meet standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “No more needs to be said.”

A list of 10 proposals was outlined by Bartlett, who was flanked by representatives of several advocacy groups as part of a coalition known as Campaign LEARN.

Several of the proposals are already contained in the state’s lengthy application submitted in January to the U.S. Department of Education for Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion incentive competition to spur education reform. Forty states, including Connecticut, have applied for the first round of grants. Connecticut is seeking $193 million over four years.

Some school reform advocates, however, have said the state lags behind others in adopting legislation that would enhance its chances of winning some or all of the money.

With state budgets suffering through the nation’s slumping economy, several states already have made aggressive efforts to compete for the grants.

The proposal likely to stir the most controversy-allowing parents to petition to shake up failing schools–is patterned after a California law signed last month.  Known as a “parent trigger,” it would allow parents to initiate changes such as removing principals and teachers or converting schools to charter schools. The idea quickly drew opposition from AFT-Connecticut, a statewide teachers’ union.

“Signing a petition to close a school does not engage parents in a dialogue or decision making process,” the union said. “Minimizing responsibility for a school system to a simple majority signature campaign negates parental power and involvement.”

Among the more unusual ideas is the proposal to provide an income tax break for teachers who agree to work longer days or Saturdays in the state’s neediest and lowest-performing school districts. The tax incentive is a novel approach, but the idea of lengthening the school day or school year has been tried in some schools, including charter schools, and has been viewed favorably by state officials.

The legislators also proposed:

  • Linking evaluations of teachers and administrators to measures of student performance.
  • Creating alternative paths to certification for principals.
  • Providing new incentives to enroll more students in Advanced Placement courses.
  • Requiring schools to provide at least two parent-teacher conferences each year.
  • Expanding the availability of online courses to help prevent dropouts.
  • Limiting schools’ ability to transfer struggling students into adult education programs.
  • Moving official student census counts, now done in the fall, until the spring. The counts are used to calculate state aid. By delaying the census, schools would have more incentive to keep students from dropping out, the legislators said.

“There is a lot we agree on, and we look forward to working with them,” Thomas Murphy, a State Department of Education spokesman, said of the legislators’ proposals.

State Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said some of the ideas have already been introduced as bills in the new legislative session, including proposals to create alternative certification methods for school principals and to limit schools’ ability to transfer struggling students into adult education programs.

Gaffey said, “I’d be happy to listen to their ideas,” but he added that the state’s worsening financial condition would be an obstacle. “Anything that is a mandate on school districts or costs money faces extremely tough sledding,” he said.

In addition to the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, the groups represented in Campaign LEARN include the Connecticut Black Alliance for Educational Options, the African American Affairs Commission, the State of Black Connecticut Alliance, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, the Connecticut Commission on Children, the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches, the Education Equality Project, the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, and the Multicultural Chamber of Commerce – Stamford.

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