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Mixed Results In Legislative Session

Grace E. Merritt

June 10, 2011

The state legislature passed a cyberbullying law, but several key education bills such as enhanced teacher evaluations and raising the starting age for kindergarten died during this year's legislative session.

Aware of budget constraints facing most towns, legislators voted down or postponed several bills in hopes of better times ahead. Other measures, such as the proposal to revise teacher evaluations, ran into some last-minute opposition.

The strengthened anti-bullying law gives school officials a tool to intervene when a student is harassed or threatened by electronic means, even if the bullying occurs off school grounds. The law also requires principals to come up with plans to ensure a safe school climate and requires school staff to be trained to recognize bullying.

"That was a huge step forward," said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.

"We've seen incidents in Connecticut and around the country where bullying and cyberbullying have led to acts of despair and even suicide," he said. "It is virtually impossible for a child to perform academically if they are worried about their safety."

Other legislation approved waives educational requirements for substitute teachers, allows American Sign Language to count toward high school world language requirements and sets up separate task forces to study how the state funds education.

"I'm proud of all the legislation we managed to get through in the midst of a budget crisis," Fleischmann said. "There were lots of areas where we took steps forward this year and I hope we will be able to break into a run next year."

Several other key measures did not make it through.

A bill that would have established a teacher performance evaluation system, proposed by a statewide teachers' union, died at the very end of the session.

The school reform advocate group ConnCAN balked at a union-backed amendment proposed late in the session that would have given teachers as many members as school administrators on local committees that would develop teacher evaluation plans in each school district. ConnCAN contended that it would give teacher unions too much power and create conflicts of interest, as unions would evaluate teachers and also defend those who faced losing their jobs.

As proposed, the evaluation system would have addressed poor teacher performance through support and coaching and set a timeline for dismissal that would last no longer than 100 days.

"It was extremely disappointing to say the least," said Sharon Palmer , President of AFT Connecticut, which proposed the bill. "They created enough doubt with their misinformation that it wasn't taken up at all. We could have really gotten ahead of the curve in some of the education reform stuff sweeping the country. We've lost a year now, I fear."

Meanwhile, a statewide committee has been working for a year to develop a teacher evaluation model that can be used statewide. That group hopes to finish its work by January.

In another hotly debated issue, the education committee killed a proposal that would raise the minimum age at which children can start kindergarten. Currently students may begin in September as long as they turn 5 by the following Jan. 1. The proposal would have moved the date for eligibility to Oct. 1.

Several early childhood advocates protested that the new date would put poor children at a disadvantage because their families would likely not be able to afford preschool, which costs more than $10,000 a year. As a result, these children would fall further behind their wealthier counterparts, they argued. Fleischmann said he is open to changing the age, but would like to see universal preschool for all children put in place first.

An attempt to end the "last in, first out" approach to teacher layoffs also did not get very far. Legislators argued that the state should have a teacher performance evaluation system in place first.

With most towns facing tight budgets, the legislature also voted to delay implementing ambitious high school reforms it approved last year.

The reforms, which would require high school students to earn more credits; take more math, science and foreign language classes, and complete a thesis or other significant project, now won't take effect until 2016.

Lawmakers had hoped to pay for the school reforms with federal Race to the Top money. But when the state failed to win the federal grant, they postponed the reforms. Legislators were worried about saddling local school districts with the costs of hiring extra teachers and possibly building science labs.

Besides the cyberbullying law, here are some of the other education bills approved by the General Assembly:

*School finance: Establish a task force to study how the state funds public education, including charter schools, magnet schools and how money is distributed to municipalities.

*Substitute teachers: Allow superintendents to waive requirements that substitute teachers have bachelor's degrees

*New reading test: Pilot a new reading test in some districts to replace an antiquated test.

*Korean veterans: Allow school boards to issue high school diplomas to Korean War veterans who left school early to serve in the military.

*Pre-school: Coordinate several state departments that handle preschool services.

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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