A Senate bill that deals with some of the biggest educational concerns voiced by advocates, teachers and districts across the state this session was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday afternoon, sending it to Gov. Ned Lamont.
Senate Bill 1, “An Act Concerning Transparency in Education,” is made up of more than 80 sections and spans 60 pages, including the expansion of certain programs, an emphasis on addressing school climate, changes to tracking how school funding is used and additional efforts to improve teacher recruitment and diversity.
“It feels good to get part of our educational priorities done, and we hope that the Senate will pass the House bill packages that sit with them so that we can have a complete package of our likely over-aggressive agenda out of education,” said Education Committee Co-chair Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford. “I think [SB-1] is fixing decades of policies that simply just haven’t worked.”
The legislation passed 104-47 after about three hours of debate, where most opposition from Republican lawmakers concerned wording or whether parts of the bill were “overreaching.”
“For me, as someone who served on the [Danbury] Board of Education for five years, I take issue with any marching orders from the state. We look to the state Board of Education, we look to the state Department of Education for those, and we work with the leaders and experts that we surround ourselves with to guide and support our work,” said Rep. Rachel Chaleski, R-Danbury, referencing a section of the legislation that would require newly elected Board of Education members to undergo training.
“I do appreciate all the work that went into this,” Chaleski said. “However, especially around school climate, I wish this was a separate piece of legislation. I wish it wasn’t thrown into this huge bill. … I’m happy that this will likely pass, but I can’t support the bill as it stands right now. … I think it’s too much of an overreach.”
It now heads to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk for a final signature.
SB-1 defines school climate as the “quality and character of the school life,” including relationships between outside educational organizations, students, families, board of education members and school staff. It also adds that school climate is the “patterns of people’s experiences of school life, reflecting the school community’s norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning, leadership practices, and organizational structure,” according to language in the bill.
The bill requires the creation of school climate standards based on national guidelines, the creation of a bullying complaint form and the creation of several new practices for local implementation.
Each school will be required by the 2025-26 academic year to have a school climate specialist and a district climate coordinator. Schools will also be required to have climate committees made up of the school climate specialist, a teacher and an unspecified number of students and family members to help with a handful of tasks such as scheduling an annual school climate survey.
The bill also redefines bullying as any type of unwanted and aggressive behavior, including cyber-bullying and teen dating violence.
The bill also requires school boards to define the duties of school resource officers and require the officers to submit investigation or behavioral intervention reports.
Beyond the duties of the SROs, the bill also requires districts to adopt “restorative practices” to deal with nonviolent students who may be having behavioral challenges without police involvement.
“This is going to be transformational. It could make Connecticut a leader, a leader in the nation on looking at creating a good, safe, school climate,” said Rep. Kathleen McCarty, a Waterford Republican who serves as a ranking member on the Education Committee. “If we do this properly, we will have fewer incidents. … I really believe this is the way for us to work with our schools, with everyone that’s involved in the school community and help our students understand their behavior and to really go to those next steps when they need to have intervention.”
The bill includes grants for the hiring of school social workers, psychologists, counselors and school mental health specialists by 2024-26 instead of by 2023-25.
The bill also deals with several components of teacher recruitment, including the improvement of teacher diversity through recruitment programs for both high school students and aspiring educators.
The state’s Department of Education will be required to establish an Educator Apprenticeship Program by 2024 to help education students receive more classroom experience while they complete their programs.
Local school boards will also be required to submit plans to increase their teacher diversity and how they plan to implement those plans by the 2024-25 academic year.
The state’s Minority Teacher Candidate Scholarship Program will be changed to the Aspiring Educators Diversity Scholarship Program, and its maximum grant amount will decrease from $20,000 to $10,000.
The state Board of Education will be able to grant “adjunct professor permits,” which would allow part-time, untenured college educators to also work part-time at school districts.
By 2024, the education commissioner will also be required to work with the School Paraeducator Advisory Council to develop a training program for high school students who aspire to be paraeducators.
The bill would allow lawmakers to track how money is being spent directly on students. It would help make education more transparent, lawmakers said earlier this session.
Alliance Districts — the state’s 36 lowest-performing districts — would now have the chance to use district funding to establish family resource centers in elementary schools, which provide child care services, remedial education, families-in-training programs and additional support services to parents who need assistance.
As for school lunches, the bill creates a pilot program that Alliance Districts can apply for that would bring a professional chef into five of the districts to “assist school meal programs.”
“So the intent behind bringing in a professional chef is so these folks have been trained on operations, oftentimes working in high intensity environments,” Currey said. “These folks are probably best equipped and prepared to come and have conversations with our staff within the schools who are providing our lunches — to not only maybe assist with getting our students maybe a little bit better [meals] each day but also about streamlining operations [and] talking about the financial viability of their lunch programs.”
The bill also expands the CT Grown for CT Kids program to provide more locally grown food to students where the Department of Agriculture would create a school incentive program to reimburse local boards of education for buying locally or regionally grown food.
The bill also requires all districts to “implement a comprehensive reading curriculum model or program” for pre-K to third-graders by July 2023.
The legislation requires the Department of Education’s Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success director to “review and approve at least five reading curriculum models” that are scientific based and “focused on competency in the following reading areas: oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, rapid automatic name or letter name fluency and reading comprehension” by this July.
Schools that filed for waivers to use alternative programs must implement their models by July 2024.
The state Department of Education would also be responsible for creating curriculum to add cursive writing and world language classes for students between kindergarten through eighth grade by 2024. Local school boards would have the choice to use all, or parts, of the proposed curriculum.
For high school students, the bill requires the Department of Education to work with local boards of education and public colleges to expand dual credit classes by 2024, including “new resources, such as an online inventory,” additional support for curriculum and teacher development and tuition assistance to students enrolled in the programs.
The bill also would have schools expand workforce development skills training for students.