After Six-Hour Debate, Sweeping Schools Legislation OK'd To Close Achievement Gap
By KATHLEEN MEGAN and DANIELA ALTIMARI
May 09, 2012
HARTFORD A wave of cheers erupted Tuesday night as a school reform bill, conceived to end decades of educational inequity, passed unanimously in the ornate House of Representatives.
The bill now will go to Gov.Dannel P. Malloyfor his signature on legislation he has called the civil rights issue of the day and the centerpiece of his efforts this session.
During a lengthy six-hour debate in the House, speaker after speaker supported the bill, which will provide a sweeping reform of education aimed at closing the state's largest-in-the-nation achievement gap.
"We all know that we can't keep doing what we've done for more than 20 years when it comes to public education," Malloy said. "Our kids can't afford it, and quite frankly, neither can our state.
"I believe education reform is the civil rights issue of our time," Malloy added, "and once I sign this bill, the table will be set for real and fundamental reform of our public schools."
If there was debate, it centered on whether the bill was a bold initiative or simply a step in the right direction but all speakers seemed to agree on the need for the measure.
Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, a ranking member of the legislature's select committee on children, said of the bill, "We were all hoping it would be a bold leap, but it is a good, small step forward."
Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, said the bill may not be a home run, but, he added, "I do think it's better than a step."
By the time the six-hour session was coming to a close, Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, who helped to develop the bill and presented it on the floor, had tired of the comparisons.
"It is more than a nice step," said Fleischmann, who co-chairs the legislature's education committee. "It is a giant step that is long overdue."
The sweeping bill increases funding to needy school districts; spells out a process to turn around around low-performing schools; includes steps to strengthen teacher performance and preparation; increases preschool slots by 1,000; and creates a pilot program to enhance literacy for students in kindergarten through third grade. It also calls for a pilot program of a new teacher evaluation system during the next school year that eventually will be tied to tenure in 2013-2014.
Malloy has pumped nearly $100 million into the budget to cover the costs of the new programs.
If legislators had criticisms of the bill, it was that it didn't do enough to ensure that Connecticut regains a competitive edge in its education programs. Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, R-Old Saybrook, said the ability for the state to intervene and turn around low-performing schools was too narrow in the bill. Ackert said the pilot program on literacy was excellent, but that he'd like to see a statewide literacy program that would reach every child.
On Tuesday night, all of the parties that had been deeply divided in recent months over the education reform proposals from Malloy to teachers union leaders to legislators shared enthusiasm for the bill's passage.
Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, assistant majority leader of the House and a member of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said of the bill: "I think it's a good step, considering where we are coming from. We have been going at education reform for the past 20 years in Connecticut, and we haven't done anything in my opinion that has been very bold and meaningful.'
"The most important thing is it's just a first step," McCrory continued. "Every year we have to come back and do something else to address this achievement gap It took us a long time to get into this position, and it's going to take us a long time to get out it."
Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, likened the long discussion that led to the compromise legislation to a family feud.
"But we worked it out, and we have a solution which is good for the state of Connecticut,'' she said at a post-vote press briefing just outside the Hall of the House. "We may hit some bumps as we move across the next couple of years in trying out all these new initiatives, but we'll come back together again and straighten that out and go on."
The unanimous vote is a signal that "we are on the right path," said Palmer, who said she had tears streaming down her face as the bill passed at around 9:30 p.m. Whoops and cheers echoed through the chamber when it passed unanimously.
Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, called the reform transformational and sound.
"The problem from the beginning is that the focus was just on teachers, and it was a distraction and waste of energy," Loftus Levine said, "when it should all have been focused on what this bill finally achieved: sound education transformation."
She said the legislation "recognizes teachers as professionals and elevates their voice in school improvement decision-making."
Over the past few months, negotiations on the bill reached many an impasse. Teachers union leaders spoke out vehemently against Malloy's original education bill, saying it could lead teachers to lose their license on the strength of a single bad evaluation and that it would deprive them of their collective bargaining rights in low-performing schools earmarked for turnaround.
Malloy, meanwhile, threatened to veto a revision of his bill approved by the education committee on March 26, which he said stripped out elements necessary for "meaningful reform." Malloy and education reform advocates were equally critical of a second revision prepared by legislative leaders two weeks ago.
Since late last week, administration officials and legislative leaders have been huddled in negotiations, attempting to come up with an agreement that some predicted might not happen before the end of the session at midnight Wednesday. Late Monday the bill was finally ready and the Senate approved it early Tuesday morning.
Near the end of the discussion in the House Tuesday, House Republican Leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said, "I don't want to rain on the parade of those who say it is bold and historic [but] in Connecticut, it's long overdue."
"I want to commend our governor, who took an extremely controversial issue and put it squarely on our plate,'' Cafero said. "It took a lot of guts. ... I applaud him now for doing that."
Just before the vote was taken, House Majority LeaderJ. Brendan Sharkeyspoke in support of the bill, and added, "Nothing creates an eloquence more than unanimity."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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