Lawmakers ready to tackle education reform ideas [Associated Press]

February 10, 2012

Associated Press Story, February 9, 2012,0,3552021.story

HARTFORD, Conn.— Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s call for teacher tenure reform could become one of the trickiest measures to work out during the General Assembly session as lawmakers delve into the details of how and when those educators should be fired.

Several legislators said Wednesday and Thursday that they see bipartisan support for most of Malloy’s education reform package, and the state’s two largest teacher unions agree that the job guarantee system and evaluation process in their profession are ripe for improvements.
Now, as lawmakers start parsing the proposals and hearing from constituents, both sides are pledging to keep the lines of communication open — but cautiously watching whether either will push for something that the other can’t stomach.

“(On) tenure reform, there will be a lot of back and forth,” said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat and co-chairman of the legislature’s education committee. “The discussions will be around what circumstances it’s fair to use that system in, and it will be a healthy discussion.”

Connecticut teachers automatically receive tenure after their fourth year in the profession, and it can be revoked only under very specific circumstances and after a long process of hearings.

Critics say that allows inept or burned-out educators to keep their jobs at the expense of children who need strong teachers, and at the expense of a system in which the achievement gap keeps growing between wealthy and poor children.

Representatives of the Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two unions that represent most of the state’s public school teachers, have participated in a process to draw up a proposed evaluation system that districts could use to determine their best and worst teachers.

The state Board of Education is expected to review that proposed system Friday, and if it goes into widespread use, it would become one of the tools used to determine if a tenured teacher should lose his or her position.

“There’s this attitude across the country of `Teacher unions don’t want to see a change in tenure,’ but that’s just not true,” said Eric Bailey, a spokesman for the AFT. “We’ve been saying for years that we’re willing to make a change to the tenure law, but it needs to be the right way with due process for teachers. We can’t have a system in which you can fire a teacher for any reason.”

CEA officials said they were still reviewing the various parts of Malloy’s proposal but, like their sister union, they want to ensure the evaluation process is fair and that they have a voice in any tenure changes coming from it.

“I’m sure there are people who aren’t happy with the topic. You know, everyone doesn’t have to agree on everything all the time, but what’s important is, we all want the same goal,” said Mary Loftus Levine, the CEA’s executive director. “And everyone wants to work with other effective teachers; no one wants to see people coming into the profession unprepared.”

Fleischmann and some other lawmakers said they also see strong support among their colleagues for some particular parts of Malloy’s education reform plan, including:

— Funding 500 more preschool slots for low-income children and setting up a quality rating system for early education programs.

— Adding $50 million more to the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula to help local districts pay for their schools. Most of the new money would go to struggling districts and another $4.5 million would be set aside for grants to districts that offer the most innovative turnaround plans.

— Boosting the standards for aspiring teachers who want to enter teaching preparation programs, and holding the colleges and universities more accountable for the quality of their graduates.

In addition to the tenure changes, a few items that lawmakers think might merit more discussion and possible compromises include:

— The amount and method of intervention the state could take to overhaul schools in the newly announced “Commissioner’s Network.” Specifically, some changes being discussed — such as longer school days and school years — could clash with union contracts in those districts.

— A proposal to require districts to pay $1,000 for every child who leaves one of the district’s traditional schools to attend a magnet school. Some large cities would pay more than $1 million each, though Malloy and his supporters say that’s more than covered by the extra ECS money they’re slated to receive.

State Sen. President Pro Tem Donald Williams, a Democrat from Brooklyn, said he hopes the bipartisan spirit that seemed so evident at Malloy’s speech to lawmakers Wednesday carries over to the day-to-day work of crafting the education reform ideas and other legislation.

“I’m hoping election-year politics will not intrude on the session any more than usual. Republicans have a lot to like. Democrats have a lot to like,” Williams said.

Toni Boucher, a Republican state senator from Wilton and member of the legislature’s education committee, said the dynamics could be unusual: Since many Democrats have strong ties to labor unions, they may be under pressure to keep those ties strong this election year — and that makes the minority Republicans’ support even more important in the tenure reform issue and others.

“My biggest concern would be if the entire proposal gets watered down to the point where it wouldn’t affect the kind of changes we need,” she said. “I think that would disappoint all of us and would be very unfortunate indeed.”