Legislative panel puts teacher tenure reform on hold
HARTFORD -- A key legislative committee on Monday night voted to put off for a year changes to the state's teacher tenure system that are sought by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The governor's controversial bill on education reform was amended in several major areas, but committee leaders acknowledge that the bill will probably change further over the next few weeks.
Minority Republicans called the Education Committee rewrite a "setback" for the governor, but said there is time to amend it further before the May 9 deadline. And five of the 13 Republicans on the committee voted for it after a two-hour debate. The tally was 28-5.
The bill would leave alone the current teacher tenure system for at least a year. A proposed overhaul of tenure rules has been the subject of widespread criticism from teachers during a series of town hall meetings Malloy held throughout the state.
Despite the delay, the committee measure ultimately would change the tenure process, making it easier to fire ineffective teachers, according to a nonpartisan analysis from the Office of Legislative Research.
The usual 155-day process to fire a teacher would be eventually reduced to 115 days. Teachers now can be fired only if they are incompetent or commit crimes, but under the new rules they could be terminated if found to be "ineffective."
The revamped teacher evaluation system, under the committee bill, would be similar to one in effect in New Haven and would be the subject of further review by the state's Performance Evaluation Advisory Committee, which would adopt the guidelines by July 1.
With both tenure and evaluations reduced to so-called study bills, pushing out possible changes for months, the bill as rewritten by the committee falls far short of the governor's proposal.
"The bill the Education Committee appears set to approve represents just one step in the legislative process," said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor's senior adviser, in an afternoon statement. "Gov. Malloy has made it clear that he's determined to begin fixing what's broken in our public schools, no matter how long it takes. In the coming weeks, members of this administration will continue to work with legislators and other key stakeholders until there is a bill that represents meaningful education reform."
"I have talked with legislators who have made it very clear that they want to get better results for the children in Connecticut while showing some understanding of the position that the teachers are in and they want to strike a balance," said Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, committee co-chairman.
Instead of a new "master educator" designation proposed by Malloy for the state's highest-ranked teachers, they would be called "distinguished educators" under the bill that was the subject of weeklong closed-door negotiations.
"The largest source of anxiety out there was how will this evaluation process work and how might it relate to issues of certification and tenure," Fleischmann said. "When it comes to evaluations, they will only be of consequence if you decide you want to apply to be a `distinguished educator.' "
In an amendment presented to the committee after more than five hours of closed-door party caucuses to review overall changes to Malloy's proposal, the state commissioner of education would create a network of 10 low-performing schools -- no more than two per district -- to be audited and required to develop so-called turnaround plans.
Educational Cost Sharing, the formula by which local schools are given state support, would increase by $50 million. Bridgeport would get $4.4 million more than it now receives; Danbury about $1.7 million; Greenwich would get no extra money beyond the current $3 million a year; and Stamford would receive about $1 million more.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said he believes teachers unions had excessive input in writing the bill.
"I think right now it's a setback," McKinney told reporters in the Capitol complex. "Any time you have two people write a bill that should have been put in front of the entire community and ultimately 187 people, you're not going to get a good product."
There are 151 members of the House and 36 senators.
"I was a little disappointed on how it turned out," said Rep. Brenda L. Kupchick, R-Fairfield, a member of the Education Committee, during the committee debate. "Our voices weren't heard during this last part of it." She voted for the bill, however.
Sen. Antonietta Boucher, R-Wilton, ranking member of the committee who opposed the bill, said she was also disappointed that Republicans were left out of closed-door negotiations over the weekend. She criticized the bill for cutting funding for charter schools by $500 per student.
Fleischmann noted that leaders of the committee decided to take some funding for charter schools and double the governor's proposed 500 additional preschool slots, creating 1,000 spots in 10 of the lowest performing districts.
"The question was the best balance to strike," he said.
Officials from the state's two teachers' unions said late Monday afternoon that although they had only had a couple hours of review, it seems that the committee bill puts the state on the right track toward narrowing the unacceptable achievement gap.
"We are reacting positively, but it's not perfect and we have 44 days to go," said Sharon M. Palmer, president of the state's American Federation of Teachers. "We believe the changes in the bill will certainly help students in Connecticut and help teachers."
She said she didn't believe Republican criticism of the committee bill that it capitulated to teachers.
"We think there's more work to be done on the bill and we will continue, as we have over the past couple of months, to work on improvements to the bill," she said.