Rell Asks Business Panel To Help Close School Achievement Gap
Grace E. Merritt
March 17, 2010
Even as the legislative Black and Puerto Rican Caucus moves forward with its 10-point plan to close Connecticut's worst-in-the-nation academic achievement gap, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has decided to form a new committee, made up of mostly business leaders, to devise its own set of recommendations.
Led by Steven J. Simmons of Greenwich, who is chairman and CEO of Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications, the privately funded commission will hold hearings, visit public schools, study research, and travel to see how other states have solved the problem.
Simmons, a former University of California professor, said he approached Rell about forming the commission after he learned that Connecticut has the widest academic achievement gap in the country between low-income students and their more affluent peers on tests.
"I couldn't believe that that we were 50th out of 50 states," Simmons said. "It's not only a tragedy for the kids and their lives, many graduate without skills needed for the workforce and a large percentage don't graduate at all.
"Beyond that, it is a tragedy for the state as a whole because it impacts unemployment, the workforce, whether people want to start businesses here, the tax base and high school dropout rates. It's hard to think of a more far-reaching problem than this one."
The group's membership was carefully crafted, he said, almost entirely comprising current and retired bank and insurance CEOs, along with three members of education and community foundations.
"I thought about the best way to do this and came to the conclusion that the idea that would make most sense is to have a commission of folks who were familiar with education but did not have a particular point of view or represent a particular interest group," Simmons said. "This gets some business folks together who are experienced at solving problems and have been the heads of their companies."
Some questioned the timing of the announcement, coming after the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus' proposed 10-point bill to address the achievement gap.
At the same time, the state Department of Education and charter school advocates are pushing for other reforms aimed at improving student performance and qualifying for federal funds in the Race to the Top school reform competition.
State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, co-chairman of the education committee, said he welcomed the commitment, but was puzzled by its arrival.
"I am mystified why the governor has been asleep at the switch for the last five years and is now forming this task force," Fleischmann said. "I just find it very strange and disappointing, frankly. This is a major issue that deserves attention from the executive branch a lot earlier than now."
Rell, a Republican, said she welcomes the help of business leaders in ensuring that the state has a skilled and educated workforce. She does not believe the new group will replicate work already done by the caucus, but will bring another viewpoint to the problem, said Donna Tommelleo, a spokeswoman for the governor.
The group, which will be funded by charitable contributions, plans to hand in a report with recommendations by the end of the year, possibly as early as October, Simmons said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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