The recent landmark legislation that lawmakers and educators believe will shake up Connecticut’s public education system, now awaiting action by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, got its start in an unusual spot – the southbound lanes of I-91.

There, as he drove from Hartford to his home to Meriden one night in February, state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, a cell phone headset in his ear, began making calls.

First on his list was Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, his co-chairman on the legislature’s Education Committee. Next was state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

Gaffey asked them to help him assemble a working group of education advocates to draft legislation that would bolster the state’s chances to win millions of dollars in Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion incentive program to spur school reform.

Fleischmann and Gaffey 5-1-10

Education co-chairs Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, left, and Sen. Thomas Gaffey (file photo)

There was reason to worry. Connecticut’s prospects did not look good. Many believed the state would need sweeping new legislation in order to make a run at the money. Gaffey and Fleischmann knew that only a year earlier, a major high school standards bill – just part of the package that would be needed now – had died in the legislature. Reform would be a tough sell.

Gaffey and Fleischmann complained that Rell had been largely silent about the issue. And there were only weeks left in the legislative session. Would there be time to design a plan that could win support from teacher unions, school boards, charter school advocates and others – groups whose views often clashed?

“I was sort of beside myself,” Gaffey said. “No one was making a move to pull these people together.”

Gaffey and Fleischmann asked others to join the effort. Each of the state’s two major teachers’ unions agreed to send a representative. So did the state administrators’ union, the statewide superintendents’ association, and the school reform group ConnCAN.

The legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus also sent a representative but was pushing its own school reform bill. That legislation, known as the Achievement Gap bill, was aimed at turning around failing schools, including provisions to give parents more authority to fix those schools.

On March 5, the day officials learned that Connecticut was out of the running for the first round of Race to the Top grants, Gaffey and Fleischmann introduced the working group.

It was an unlikely coalition.  In particular, ConnCAN’s aggressive advocacy for charter schools had put the group at odds with teacher unions and others who feared that increasing support for charters would harm traditional public schools. In addition, ConnCAN’s criticism of the state’s initial Race to the Top application had rankled McQuillan, who led the effort to prepare the application.

“We wanted this done in a spirit of cooperation,” Gaffey said. “It became apparent . . . this was going to be very difficult.”

Several other states already had passed legislation designed to align more closely with the goals of Race to the Top. In Connecticut, the issues were daunting. Would unions be willing to lift the state’s strict limits on charter enrollment? Could the group find common ground on using student performance as a factor in teacher evaluations – a key objective in the federal competition?

For the next seven weeks, the group met regularly, usually in Gaffey’s Capitol office, crowded around a small rectangular wooden table. They debated issues such as easing restrictions on charter schools and raising high school standards. They discussed the kind of school data the state should collect. They clashed over a proposal for fast-track licensing of school principals, disagreeing on who should qualify to enter the program.

“The discussions got heated from time to time,” Fleischmann said. “In some instances, the parties could not agree.” When that happened, he and Gaffey would make the call.

“The two of us sat at one end of the table . . . and did our best to find answers that would work for Race to the Top, work for students, and wouldn’t drive any of the parties away from the table,” said Fleischmann, who did not miss a meeting despite still feeling the effects of treatment and surgery for cancer.

The debate over how to link teacher evaluations with student performance was particularly intense. Union officials such as the Connecticut Education Association’s John Yrchik strongly opposed what they thought could be too much reliance on student test scores, an idea Yrchik called “profoundly disturbing.” Alex Johnston, ConnCAN’s chief executive officer, argued for a strong, definitive link between teacher evaluation and student growth.

“We spent hours on that,” Johnston said.

In the end, the bill included a provision calling for teacher evaluation procedures using “multiple indicators” of performance, including consideration of factors such as attendance, class size and student mobility.

“It was an interesting jousting match between JohnYrchik and Alex,” Gaffey said. “I often felt like a tennis judge.”

The bill ultimately won the support of the group, including teacher unions. In a handful of states such as Massachusetts, Louisiana and Colorado, school reform legislation has failed to win union endorsements – something Gaffey believes will be critical as the U.S. Department of Education judges the next Race to the Top applications.

In Connecticut, the bill covered a broad range of reforms, from expanding graduation standards to revamping education data systems. “It is the only piece of legislation probably in the history of the state that starts to move us a little bit from the industrial age model,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“I think Tom Gaffey and Andy Fleischmann really kept us on track,” said Cirasuolo, a member of the working group. “I never felt we’d come out with nothing. Frankly, the stakes were too high.”

None of the interest groups got everything it wanted. “We were pushing the state to go further and faster on this,” said Johnston, the ConnCAN lobbyist, “but there is no question this bill is a big step forward.” He, too, credited Gaffey and Fleischmann, saying their determination to finish the task is “why nobody wanted to get up from the table and walk out.”

None of it would have happened if the groups had not talked out their differences face to face, said Yrchik, the teachers’ union official.  “I have to confess I was impressed with the way the process worked,” he said. “If something like this had occurred in the shadows . . . and we had objected to things being put in [the bill], the entire legislative process would have gotten bollixed up.”

As the clock ticked toward the legislature’s midnight adjournment on May 5, lawmakers faced one last hurdle.

The Senate had passed the Race to the Top bill, and the House of Representatives had passed the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus’ Achievement Gap bill. But Gaffey said the Senate would not vote to approve the Achievement Gap bill until the House first approved the Race to the Top legislation.

Recalling that the House had failed to pass a secondary school reform bill a year ago, Gaffey said he feared the Race to the Top bill could lose support from House members if the Achievement Gap bill had already won final approval.

Who would vote first? Gaffey refused to budge. There was a standoff.

After much wrangling, the House agreed to combine the two bills. The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus legislation strengthened the overall reform package, said Fleischmann. The House debated the package for seven hours, approving it just before 3 a.m. on the final day of the legislative session. Later that day, only hours before the deadline, the Senate approved the bill.

Later, Gaffey admitted there had been moments of doubt. “It was an incredibly fine balance that had to be struck,” he said. “If anybody had suggested a year ago that we’d be able to pass that big a package . . . I think most people in this building would say absolutely no way.”

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