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Fractious Fight Yields Real Education Reform

School Bill: Reform legislation isn't perfect, but it's a promising start

Hartford Courant Editorial

May 08, 2012

The process was fractious and the advocacy fierce. It was classic legislative sausage-making, but it produced an education reform bill that should help ameliorate Connecticut's worst-in-the-nation achievement gap and improve the quality of all of its public schools.

The education bill, which passed the state Senate early Tuesday morning and is expected to be passed by the House, represents an extraordinary effort by Gov.Dannel P. Malloyto light a fire under the education establishment and get the state's schools back on top.

And if the General Assembly didn't quite match the governor's daring or sense of urgency, and if it was overly accommodating to the teachers unions, it nonetheless passed a measure that appears to give education leaders the tools they need to improve low-performing schools and make the good schools better.

The bill puts considerable and appropriate emphasis on failing or underperforming schools. It creates a "Commissioner's Network" that enables the state to intervene in 25 schools with a variety of supports, up to a school makeover plan if the school's turnaround committee cannot produce one.

The bill gives the state's education commissioner the authority to require that the lowest-performing schools offer preschool, summer school, extended school days or school year, and weekend classes if needed, and tutoring and professional development for teachers.

What Gives Pause

It's not clear if the $7.5 million budgeted would pay for all these activities, a potential stumbling block. Also, the bill keeps union contracts in place and will allow the unions the ability to bargain over the impact of these changes. Whether this will inhibit proposed changes remains to be seen; this is new ground, and reform will have to move ahead by trial and error.

Mr. Malloy said he's been contacted by superintendents who would like the state's help. Hartford Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in an interview with The Courant's editorial board on Monday that the Milner School, which has thus far resisted improvements seen at many other city schools, might be a candidate for the new network.

The increase in charter school funding is a plus for cities, like Hartford, with high-performing charter schools. So is the creation of 1,000 new early education slots, the majority in 30 poorly performing districts. A pilot program to enhance literacy for students in kindergarten through third grade is also promising (as long as the often-underfunded state Department of Education has the staff to monitor new pilot programs).

Teacher Tenure

The most contentious part of the package involved teacher evaluation and its connection to job security. The bill creates an annual evaluation process for principals, administrators and teachers. Teacher tenure will be awarded based on "effective practice." The new evaluation system is expected to be rolled out as a pilot program in eight to 10 schools next year and implemented broadly the following year.

The bill streamlines the process for removing ineffective teachers, although whether the faster system conflicts with the due process rights of a tenured teacher is another thing that will have to play out in practice. Still, it should be easier to remove bad teachers. The real challenge for administrators will be to use the evaluation process to improve mediocre teachers.

There are other things in the bill to like. It creates a common budget template, called a "uniform chart of accounts," so that districts can get apples-to-apples comparisons of costs and expenditures. The bill recognizes excellent teachers with a "distinguished educator" status.

Mr. Malloy said this was the year of education; perhaps every year should be so designated. Connecticut rested on its laurels for too long, letting low-performing schools fester and missing federal challenge grants that rewarded innovation. Mr. Malloy rallied a real reform effort. His challenge now is to keep it going.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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