As the state General Assembly debates an education reform package proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy, Westport educators reacted skeptically to the legislation Wednesday night during a forum hosted by several Fairfield County state legislators at Town Hall.
Among the changes proposed by Malloy are: increased funding for early childhood education and charter schools; a ranking system for all schools; modifying conditions of teacher tenure; changes to collective bargaining for educators, and a new framework that would closely link teacher certification and evaluation to student performance.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136; state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26; state Sen. John McKinney, R-28, who serves as the state Senate minority leader; and state Rep. John Shaban, R-135, led the discussion. While indicating their support for the concept of education reform, those lawmakers indicated that Malloy's proposed legislation will undergo a comprehensive legislative vetting that will likely produce a bill distinct from initial proposals.
"This is an incredibly comprehensive bill," Steinberg said. "That makes it totally unreasonable to expect to accomplish it all in one session, let alone a short session of the legislature. I view the governor's proposal as a provocation to get the conversation going, and there he has been tremendously successful."
That "conversation" on Wednesday featured several Westport public school teachers, who voiced concerns about several provisions in Malloy's legislation.
"If you're going to get rid of the current salary structure and sort of completely change the game, which is what I see happening here, then I just don't see how you can say that's not trying to destroy collective bargaining," said Coleytown Middle School librarian John Horrigan, who also serves as the treasurer for the local teachers' union, the Westport Education Association.
The panel of legislators acknowledged that sections of the proposed legislation that pertain to educators' rights could prove to be contentious. As legislators signaled support for teachers, they nevertheless indicated they would consider changes that could affect the review process and compensation for educators.
"I would like to see that [compensation] sum for the teaching profession increasing further," said Boucher, whose serves on the General Assembly's Education and Higher Education committees. "This has to be a field that is highly respected and is on par for anybody that is working on mid-level positions on Wall Street. Doing that, you also run the risk of it being a more risky profession, in other words more open to the evaluation process and not necessarily having the safeguarding of that position throughout the rest of your career."
Educators who spoke Wednesday, however, expressed unease about Malloy's legislation potentially creating an unfair evaluation framework.
"With the governor's bill, I fear what would happen to my daughter and me if an administrator took a disliking to me and began giving me poor evaluations," said Kerstin Warner, a teacher at Bedford Middle School. "If this bill goes into place ... I could lose my job and not be able to find a job in another district. There's so much power being put into the hands of administrators."
McKinney described teacher evaluation as "extremely tough to do," but expressed confidence that legislators and educators could agree on a "good" evaluation system.
"On one side, there are people who say, `If you're a teacher and your class does better on the CMTs [Connecticut Mastery Test], then you're a better teacher than the teacher next to you,' " he added. "I think that's somewhat of an absurd position that looks solely at test scores. There is another group of people that says, `Don't look at test scores at all.' I think that is also a position that we shouldn't take."
Much of Malloy's proposed education reform legislation focuses on improving low-performing schools and closing the "achievement" gap between students in struggling school systems and their counterparts in high-performing school districts. With Westport's public school students regularly ranked among the highest academic achievers in the state, legislators and educators concurred that the success of the Westport school district could serve as a template for other Connecticut schools.
"I realize that there are a lot of changes that need to be made," said Kathy Sharp, a Staples High School social studies teacher, who also serves as the president of the Westport Education Association. "We are fortunate to have an incredible education system. If we're looking for models, how come we're not looking more closely at Staples High School and the town of Westport?"
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