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Letter: How to Fix Connecticut's Education Reform?

WILTON, Conn. — The following is a letter from State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, on Gov. Dannel Malloy's education reform bill.

The governor maintains that education reform is the “civil rights issue of our time.”

Yet, the Education Committee chairs recently passed a watered-down version of the governor’s original bill. The committee bill was heavily influenced and, many feel, was crafted by special interests behind closed doors. 

There are provisions that all sides agree on, such as the ability to hire teachers from other states by removing barriers; increasing early childhood education slots for priority districts; and increasing grants for charter schools and non-Sheff magnet schools — but much more is left to be negotiated.

Areas still outstanding include:

  • How the evaluation process would tie into tenure or the dismissal process;
  • How evaluations relate to student growth;
  • Would a master’s degree be considered in evaluations or compensation?
  • Will the process by which persistently failing schools be reconstituted in a commissioner “network”?
  • Admissions criteria for teacher preparation programs;
  • Tuition-reimbursement for teachers in high-priority schools.

There are some misconceptions surrounding the governor’s original reform bill that are being propagated. Many opponents believe collective bargaining will be dropped. In fact, the original bill put forth by the governor and commissioner keeps collective bargaining in place while making modifications to 10 failing schools.

There is a misconception that teachers were not consulted on the State Department of Education’s new evaluation guidelines. The bill refers to an evaluation system for teachers and principals that was developed and approved unanimously by teachers’ unions, school leaders and boards of education. This evaluation system considers student absenteeism, mobility and special needs. 

Another misconception is that certifications would potentially be removed for poor performance. The bill does not remove a person’s certification and attempts to reduce arbitrary decisions or subjective evaluation results. Additionally, if a school system has an evaluation system that is equal or superior to state guidelines, that district may be waived.

Gov. Malloy has repeatedly been quoted as saying, “The idea that we are trying to take apart collective bargaining is not true. We’re not trying to take rights away from teachers. We're going to evaluate teachers in ways they agreed upon.” 

One of the main sticking points appears to be the attainment and retention of teacher tenure and yet, unlike in many other states, the governor’s bill maintains tenure and due process.

Why is there a sense of urgency? The governor’s reply is that “We are already a decade too late.” We are losing too many young students, some forever. We have lost very important ground. Connecticut’s achievement gap is the widest in the nation and getting worse. Two out of five of our most disadvantaged students drop out of high school, and the number grew in the last year.

Connecticut was once the No. one education state in the country. We have fallen to No. 16 and continue to drop. More than 30 states have enacted significant reform, including Massachusetts, which has far surpassed us in national standing. The federal government’s Race to the Top grant has rewarded these states financially. Rhode Island receives more than $800 per student and New York and Massachusetts get approximately $350-$400 per student.  

These funds help states enact new programs and initiatives that prepare students to compete in a global world. Connecticut has failed to receive these funds after multiple applications due to our lack of serious education reform.

Politicians often say they run for office to make a difference. What I have learned is that “making a difference” is extremely elusive. There are few endeavors that can truly make a difference.

There are only two places where we have a real fighting chance to make a lasting, life-altering difference: in the home and in the classroom. And if the home fails a child, there is only one place left: the classroom.  

A teacher has an enormous responsibility and great influence in a young person’s life.

Some say the governor’s education reform bill is now on life support. Yet we remain hopeful the patient can be resuscitated by making the compromises necessary to elevate the quality of education in Connecticut. Our children are depending on us to do the right thing.

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