Governor, legislative leaders agree on education reforms
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared victory Monday night in his long, contentious push for education reforms, announcing a compromise agreement at a televised press conference with legislative leaders who promised quick passage, beginning with an overnight debate in the Senate.
The governor stepped before the cameras at 10 p.m., ending a day of negotiation and rumor, flanked by Democratic leaders and urban lawmakers to outline his revised approach to turning around 25 low-performing city schools.
Malloy said the reforms will allocate nearly $100 million for public schools.
“This is a big issue — maybe the biggest we’ll tackle, because it involves our children. And with any big issue, especially when you’re trying to change things, it’s hard. Change is hard,” Malloy said. “But we have achieved change, and our children will benefit. We will not fix what’s broken overnight — we can’t. But we will begin to.”
The governor downplayed concessions made to dampen opposition by the state’s two major teachers’ unions, instead saying that the compromise still addresses six principles of education reform that he laid out in December. He never used the word “tenure,” a central focus of his State of the State speech in February.
When Malloy announced plans to improve education in the state late last year, he proposed requiring that teachers receive numerous “exemplary” or “proficient” evaluations to earn and keep their tenure. The deal outlined Monday night requires that they be graded as “effective” to earn tenure and will have to be graded as “ineffective” to lose their tenure.
“Evaluations for the first time will have real consequences,” Roy Ochiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, said Monday.
The evaluations will begin in 10 districts this upcoming school year, and a statewide rollout will begin in 2013-2014.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said the compromise arose from marathon talks Saturday and Sunday, with much of Monday spent honing language. The agreement was announced with exactly 50 hours left in the annual legislative session that ends at midnight Wednesday.
Malloy acknowledged the rush to translate an agreement into legislative language, warning that some revisions may be required even after passage.
“So there’s a chance that there will be language in the bill that needs to be fixed. Not because anyone’s trying to pull a fast one, but because we’re all human. That said, if that occurs, the Senate president and speaker have given me their word that whatever mistakes are made will be corrected. And I take them at their word,” Malloy said.
The leaders of the House and Senate Republican minorities, Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield, were not as trusting. They were invited at 9:15 p.m. to the 10 p.m. press conference — the governor’s staff says it also kept them updated over the weekend — but they declined.
“We cannot stand before the public nor our respective caucuses and say we are on board a bill that we have not seen,” Cafero said.
The unions were not at the bargaining table over the weekend, Williams said. Participants were limited to Malloy’s senior staff, including Mark Ojakian, who is chief of staff, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor and representatives of the House and Senate Democratic majority caucuses, Williams said.
But Williams conceded that a crucial element of negotiations was aimed at encouraging “teacher buy-in.” If the unions were not going to formally sign off on an agreement, then the Democratic legislators were intent on dampening their opposition by clarifying a continuing union role at the troubled schools.
A breakthrough, he said, was setting the parameters for “impact bargaining” at the turnaround schools: the changes that would be subject to abbreviated talks, as opposed to major changes, such as a longer school year, which would be subject to full collective bargaining.
Malloy said during the press conference that the compromise still empowers the commissioner to reshape the troubled schools.
“The commissioner has a lot of authority,” Malloy said. “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.”
Malloy proposed giving the State Department of Education the authority to force certain changes, and bypass legal battles with teachers’ unions, in these schools. The agreed upon bill will keep the existing union contracts in place and will allow the unions the ability to go to arbitration if they aren’t on board with certain initiatives.
“Bottom line, there are methods to get the work done we need,” Pryor said, noting that any legal challenges will be “expedited.”
Arguments in arbitration will be limited to six hours for each party, and decisions will be made much more quickly.
In the state’s lowest-performing schools, the bill allows the state’s commissioner the authority to require they offer preschool, summer school, extended school days or year, weekend classes, tutoring and professional development for teachers. There is no mention of how these things would be paid for, something local officials will likely oppose being forced to provide with no guaranteed funding.
The bill will phase-in increased charter school funding. For this upcoming year, charters will be reimbursed $1,100 more for each student, or $10,500. In three school years, state funding will increase to $11,500. Malloy had proposed local districts send $1,000 for each student that leaves for a charter school. This mini “money-follows-the-child” approach is not included in the compromise.
New charter schools that vow to be racially integrated will be awarded up to $75,000. The state is facing an October court-ordered deadline to integrate its Hartford-area schools.
The plan calls for two new charter schools for non-English speaking students. It is unclear how soon they will open and when funding for them will be available.
Leaders of Connecticut’s two major teachers’ unions expressed cautious optimism following the governor’s press conference.
“On the surface … it appears that a lot of good changes have occurred,” said Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, which had run television commercials criticizing Malloy.
She praised provisions to create 1,000 new early education slots in poor communities and guaranteeing a hearing for ineffective teachers at risk of being terminated.
But both Levine and the president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Connecticut chapter, Sharon Palmer, said late Monday that their perceptions were based on an outline of the reform bill prepared by Malloy’s office. The actual bill still was being prepared by legislative staff.
“From what we’ve heard, it sounds like a reasonable compromise,” Palmer said, noting that she also was pleased to hear Malloy announce additional early childhood education slots.
Palmer added that she believes a reasonable compromise has been reached on tenure provisions, arguably the most controversial aspect of the governor’s education reform. “I think a middle ground has been brought forth,” she said.
Michael Sharpe, the chief executive officer of the Jumoke Academy in Hartford and president of the Connecticut Charter School Coalition, said the agreement gives charters “fair and equitable funding.”
“While not perfect, this is a very positive step forward for Connecticut’s schoolchildren,” Sharpe said. “Gov. Malloy deserves special recognition, as do members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus for their leadership and their efforts to help to close this state’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap.”
The caucus held a press conference last week endorsing the governor’s overall approach. Most of its members attended the press conference.