Connecticut lawmakers gave final legislative approval to a wide-ranging bill that attempts to overhaul the state’s public education and to close one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps between rich and poor.
Gov. Dannel Malloy called it “meaningful education reform,” saying the $100-million bill would “allow us to begin fixing what is broken in our public schools.” He signed the bill into law this week.
Initially, teachers’ unions clashed with Mr. Malloy over the bill. But a compromise between the legislature and the governor was reached late Monday night, May 7.
Officials from the state’s two major unions credited their members with fighting off some of Mr. Malloy’s original proposals, such as allowing the state’s commissioner to take over a school, negate existing union contracts and allow greater privatization of struggling schools.
“We’re really the only state that has stopped this. I don’t know of anybody who has stopped this. It’s amazing, it really is,” said Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “It’s different because it’s done by maintaining teachers’ rights, being extremely collaborative and it’s research-based reform — all of which we have been advocating for from the beginning.”
The House of Representatives passed the bill the following night, May 8, on a 149-to-0 vote. The governor signed it a week later, on May 15.
“By allocating nearly 100 million additional dollars to reform our public schools, we are saying that every child can and must receive an education that allows them to compete in the 21st Century economy,” Mr. Malloy said during a press conference on May 7.
“This is a big issue — maybe the biggest we’ll tackle, because it involves our children. And with any big issue, especially when you’re trying to change things, it’s hard. Change is hard. But we have achieved change, and our children will benefit,” Mr. Malloy said.
All three of Weston’s state legislators — Sen. John McKinney (R-28th District), Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26th District) and Rep. John Shaban (R-135th District) — voted in favor of the final bill, although everyone involved acknowledged compromises had to be made.
“The best part about it was we got something substantive done,” Mr. Shaban said.
He is happy a provision that would have penalized small regional districts — like Redding and Easton’s Region 9, which Mr. Shaban represents — was “reduced to a study,” and he likes that the bill allocates more money for early education and charter schools. “There’s really a focus on getting kids reading early, and that’s good,” Mr. Shaban said.
Ms. Boucher, a ranking member on the Education and Higher Education Committees, agreed. She said her favorite part of the package is the increase in early childhood education funding. “That’s so critical, especially in our disadvantaged communities,” Ms. Boucher said. She is also happy with provisions that make it easier to intervene early regarding reading readiness. “If kids can’t read by third grade, they are so far behind,” she said.
Ms. Boucher said she is pleased she was able to spend so much time with teachers and was able to pass on many of their concerns. “I really felt I had some serious input into this, she said.
“I think the reality was there were some things the governor and the [education] commission wanted that made the teachers’ unions uncomfortable,” Ms. Boucher said, adding she could see why certain compromises were made. “Teachers need to be respected above all, and this [bill] does that. … It’s not perfect, but it moves the bar forward.”
Mr. Shaban also viewed the final package as not the end but the beginning of education reform. “Bottom line, I believe that the bill is a solid first step, and I am pleased to have been part of these reforms on behalf of my constituents,” he said.
The governor’s office outlined the “Six Principles of the Education Reform Package and the Final Legislation.” (See sidebar/online for details.) They include:
• Enhancing families’ access to high-quality early childhood education opportunities.
• Authorizing the intensive interventions and enabling the supports necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and districts.
• Expanding the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters, and others.
• Unleashing innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success, especially in high-performing schools and districts.
• Ensuring that schools are home to the best teachers and principals — working within a fair system that values skill and effectiveness over seniority and tenure.
• Delivering more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need, provided they embrace key reforms that position students for success.
“We will not fix what’s broken overnight — we can’t. But we will begin to,” Mr. Malloy said. “At a time when our state — and states across the country — continues to face financial challenges, I believe this agreement also speaks to our commitment to improving public education.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story