Reform Advocates Blame 'Weak' Education Bill On Closed-Door Meetings
Malloy To Legislators: 'We Can't Wait' To Fix Broken Parts Of School System
BY KATHLEEN MEGAN and KEN BYRON
March 28, 2012
Six groups that support education reform criticized Wednesday the "weak version" of the education reform bill the legislature's Education Committee approved Monday, saying it was developed behind closed doors with a "lack of transparency."
"The process by which changes to this bill were negotiated excluded the voices of Superintendents, Boards of Education, principals, parents, community leaders, and students," a statement from the groups said. "The result is a bill that reflects compromises that appear to be brought on by pressure from the teachers unions."
Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of School Superintendents, one of the six groups, said: "What we are really saying is that the teachers unions have almost veto power over anything that happens in education in Connecticut."
Rae Ann Knopf, executive director of the Council for Education Reform, said that while a broad range of groups had the opportunity to testify at earlier hearings before the committee, in recent weeks the committee co-chairmen met in "closed door sessions" with teachers union leaders and the governor's administration.
Mark Ojakian, Gov.Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff, said that at the governor's direction, the administration had made a "very concerted effort to get to agreement with the [unions] around a specific part of the bill."
As the deadline for the committee's vote on the bill drew near, a small group met Saturday to discuss some of the knottier areas of disagreement. The marathon meeting included the Education Committee co-chairs — Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, and Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford — along with Ojakian and representatives from the two teachers unions.
Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, said the meeting was held at an undisclosed office building in Hartford to ensure privacy from the media and others. Fleischmann and Ojakian also declined to identify the site.
Saturday's discussion — which focused on several particular concerns of teachers, including collective bargaining and labor management — began around noon and continued until 1:30 a.m. Sunday, without reaching agreement on some key issues.
Eric Bailey, communications director for the AFT Connecticut, said that after discussions broke down, the Education Committee was left to go and rework the bill. "Obviously, we think the bill was a lot better than it was when it started," Bailey said, "but there is still room for improvement."
But the six groups contend the reworked bill was not better.
"It's really hard to say this is reform and this is what's best when most of the voices were excluded," said Patrick Riccards, chief executive officer of ConnCAN, a New Haven-based reform group. "The vast majority of stakeholders weren't part of the discussion."
The other groups that signed the statement were the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, the Connecticut Association of Schools and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.
Fleischmann countered that the Education Committee held 19 hours of public hearings and met with "every stakeholder including every organization on that press release, so I don't think it would be fair for any stakeholder to say that they didn't have a voice or didn't have access. ... Anyone who claims there was a lack of transparency or input is not acknowledging the democratic process that occurred."
Palmer of the AFT shrugged off the advocacy groups' complaints, saying they had their own meetings with the Education Committee leadership and the unions weren't invited to those sessions.
She said she doesn't think the advocacy groups are "shrinking violets who don't make their opinions or their thoughts well-known."
Fleischmann also took issue with the groups' characterization of the bill as "weak."
"I disagree entirely," he said, pointing to a new teacher evaluation system that will be "validated" this year and to a new standard for teacher performance that makes it possible to dismiss an "ineffective" teacher. The standard for dismissal now is incompetence.
Riccards said that education reform advocates are concerned about postponing tenure reform and scaling back the number of low-performing schools that will be targeted for turnaround efforts. The revised bill also provides less flexibility to improve schools than Malloy's proposal, and cuts back on increased funds Malloy had proposed for charter schools.
'We Can't Wait'
Malloy, who has made it clear that he wouldn't sign the revised version of the reform bill as written now, sent a letter to legislators Wednesday, urging them to make the difficult changes now that are needed to improve education.
"If we wait," he wrote, "we are consigning too many of our children to another year in which they will continue to fall behind their peers. The farther behind they fall, the less likely they are to ever catch up."
Malloy wrote that he is aware "that we all have relationships and alliances that make change even more difficult. But when it comes to education reform, it's time to put the needs of our children ahead of those relationships and alliances."
Later on Wednesday at a town hall meeting at McGee Middle School in Berlin, Malloy defended his sweeping vision of education reform to a crowd that on occasion criticized his proposals and the way he has pushed them.
Malloy conceded that language he has used during the debate sometimes has not helped matters, but he refused to back down from his contention that reform is crucial.
"Berlin is doing well, but in the large, urban areas we are failing," Malloy said.
Berlin High School teacher Evelisa Mayette told Malloy she is concerned that the new evaluation system gives administrators too much influence over a teacher's future. Malloy, who has proposed linking teacher evaluations to tenure, said the new system is more comprehensive and gives a better picture of a teacher's performance than the existing one.
David Bosso, a social studies teacher at Berlin High School who was named Connecticut's teacher of the year for 2012, said he is worried that the often-contentious debate about reform will hurt teachers' morale.
"You need to consider the demoralization of teachers because when morale drops teaching suffers, and this needs to be avoided," Bosso said. "I feel much more effective when my profession is elevated."
Malloy said reform efforts in other states have not driven out teachers, and he insisted that the issues that are bothering teachers are not his fault. "Don't blame me for poor morale. It wasn't me who said I would take away teachers' certification or due process," he said.
The problems facing city schools are so urgent that they need attention even if that puts teachers in an uncomfortable position, Malloy said.
"You are in a great school system in Berlin, but right next door in New Britain that is not the case. We need to find something that lights a fire under all of us," he said.
Union leaders and administration officials were scheduled to meet to continue discussions Wednesday and Thursday mornings, but the meetings were canceled, Ojakian said — in part because of scheduling conflicts but also because time is needed to come up with "the most effective strategy to negotiate the bill with all of the stakeholders: legislators, unions, other groups."
"To have a specific set of conversations in the short term with the unions without coming up with an overall process didn't make sense," he said.
Fleischmann said he's hopeful that "after a cooling-off period, people can start talking again. When people keep talking, it becomes possible to find common ground and reach agreement. It's impossible if folks stop speaking and start issuing press releases and letters instead. Hopefully the press releases and the letters abate soon, and that conversation will begin again."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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