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Education Reform Bill Gets Final Legislative Approval

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Connecticut State House (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

Connecticut State House (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

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By SUSAN HAIGH and SHANNON YOUNG
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut’s teachers’ unions expressed relief on Tuesday after the General Assembly passed a compromise education overhaul bill that leaders said is a marked improvement from legislation first proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a plan the unions believed was akin to reforms offered by Republican governors in other states.

Officials from the state’s two major unions credited their members with fighting off some of Malloy’s original proposals, such as allowing the state’s commissioner to take over a school, negate existing union contracts and allow greater privatization of struggling schools.

“We’re really the only state that has stopped this. I don’t know of anybody who has stopped this. It’s amazing, it really is,” said Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It’s different because it’s done by maintaining teachers’ rights, being extremely collaborative and it’s research-based reform _ all of which we have been advocating for from the beginning.”

The legislation received final legislative approval in the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening, passing 149-0.

Malloy said the bipartisan vote shows Connecticut officials can work together on an “issue of tremendous importance.”

“We all know that we can’t keep doing what we’ve done for more than 20 years when it comes to public education,” he said. “Our kids can’t afford it, and quite frankly, neither can our state.”

Connecticut’s education reform effort _ initially driven by Malloy when last year he designated the last three months as the education legislative session and later proposed a wide-ranging bill _ has attracted national attention from teachers’ unions as well as education reform groups that have pushed for charter schools and changes in teacher union contracts.

Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst, a California-based organization that has spent about $800,000 in Connecticut on advertising and lobbying for Malloy’s legislation, said her group is particularly interested in Connecticut because it has one of the largest achievement gaps between rich and poor students in the country, and the fact that Malloy is a Democrat and the General Assembly is controlled by Democrats. Similar reform efforts in other states over the past 18 to 24 months have been pushed by Republicans, she said.

“While I wouldn’t say that what the governor proposed was the most dramatic of reforms on the national landscape,” Rhee told The Associated Press in an interview. “When you put it in the context of reforms that have been proposed by a Democrat, I think that they were very aggressive.”

After details of the compromise $100 million bill were released late Monday night, Rhee said Connecticut was taking “a meaningful first step toward turning around the lowest performing schools in the state and expanding the opportunity to have a great education for all kids.” But Rhee promised that her organization will be back.

“Working with reformers throughout Connecticut, we hope to build upon this victory in 2013 by expanding parent choice and teacher effectiveness for all of the schools in the state,” she said. “There will still be far too many districts without the opportunity, or the mandate, to implement policies that are in the best interests of students, and so more work remains to be done.”

The bill creates a new Commissioner’s Network, allowing the state to “provide intensive supports and interventions” needed to turn around 25 low-performing schools. It allows each school to create a new committee of teachers, parents and administrators to come up with plans to turn around their schools. Those will be considered by the state education commissioner.

The commissioner can develop or modify those plans. If he disagrees with the committee’s proposal, a third party referee will intercede. Teachers unions had complained that Malloy’s original bill did not provide them with enough input into fixing their schools and it decimated collective bargaining rights.

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the Education Committee, said there have been attempts in the past to take over troubled schools, but there hasn’t been the right team in place or the will to make follow through.

“It is more than a nice step,” he said of the bill. “It is a giant leap that is long overdue.”

Rep. Douglas McCrory, a school administrator in one of the poorest sections of Hartford, said those parents anxiously want improvements made at their children’s schools. He said: “We know there is a school-to-prison pipeline and we need it to end”

The bill also requires annual performance evaluations for principals, administrators and teachers, and links tenure to a teacher’s effectiveness. There are also 1,000 new early childhood education slots in low-income communities; additional funding for agricultural science high schools, magnet, vocational-technical, and struggling schools; and two new charter schools focused on English language learners.

“I feel like we should have been doing this for a long time,” said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, of the overhaul efforts. “It wasn’t until the state got embarrassed that the state decided to do something about this. It just baffles me the way we’ve operated.”

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said the bill finally puts the state on the right path.

“No longer are we going to accept chronically underperforming schools,” he said. “That is a good day for the state of Connecticut.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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