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New London - Local teachers, parents and community members filled the gymnasium of the Winthrop Magnet Elementary School on Monday for the seventh stop of the governor's statewide Education Reform Tour.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is using the town hall-style tours to speak with the public about his proposed reforms to the state's public school system. The 163-page Bill No. 24, which is still in draft stages, is a comprehensive proposal aimed at improving the state's achievement gap, which is the worst in the nation.
"I'm here to make sure that Connecticut is competitive not just on a state or regional basis, but competitive among the 50 states and on an international level," Malloy said in his opening remarks. "This year, we're talking about adding $123 million to education. We will not be competitive - even when we put our fiscal house in order, even when there might be more money available - if not at this moment we embrace education reform."
Topics Monday included Education Cost Sharing funding, teacher evaluations, magnet and charter school funding, closing the achievement gap and parent involvement.
Clare DePeter Powers, a New London resident who said she holds two different teaching licenses, came to the meeting as a parent and not a teacher, even though she said she does have concerns about tenure and her pay scale "going up and down when I have to pay a mortgage and send my kids to college on my principal's 'yay' or 'nay.'"
The proposed bill would tie tenure and pay to performance evaluations.
Powers asked why practices that have been proven by the state to be effective in magnet and charter schools can't be implemented and funded in neighborhood schools.
"There's nothing stopping that from happening right now," Malloy said. "Under this bill, New London would receive $810,000 (in ECS funds) in a time when everybody knows there's not a lot of money coming in. This down payment relates to what I believe we have to do, and that is to concentrate on the 30 low-performing districts to make sure they get more assets and (to get) schools to turn around performance."
Malloy said those 30 school districts educate 41 percent of Connecticut's public school students, who, "based on any standard, are underachieving."
According to a 2010 report by the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, the achievement gap between low-income and non-low income students' standardized test scores is the largest of any state in the country.
The gap exists in every part of Connecticut, and some of the state's wealthiest towns have achievement gaps larger than those of the Hartford and New Haven school districts, according to the report.
The commission lists eight reasons for the achievement gap, including the number of children living in low-income families, the need for effective teachers and the need for high-quality preschool and full-day kindergarten programs.
In the report, the commission recommends that to fix the gap, state leaders must demand accountability, set high expectations, foster leadership, hire excellent teachers, invest intelligently and turn around schools.
Gloria Dimon of Old Lyme, a parent of two children, said before the meeting that she came in support of public school teachers.
"My parents were mill workers," Dimon said. "What saved my life was public education, and that only happened because the district was properly funded, there was a collaboration between parents and teachers, and because teachers had a say in how and what to teach.
"The achievement gap is the civil rights issue of this era."
Winthrop teacher Maureen Brigham asked what the bill has in store to help parents.
"Our poor children that we see every day are so needy," Brigham said. "They're not clean, don't have working phones and live in condemned homes. I'm not saying the moms aren't sending us the best they have and that they're not loving, caring parents, but we need more help, we need to empower these moms."
Malloy said that as part of the bill, there is money set aside for family and medical resources and early-childhood education programs.
"I can't accept, as someone who cares about people, that because someone's parents don't have certain skill sets that we should stop trying to do the best we can," Malloy said.
Previous town hall meetings in Hartford, West Hartford, Torrington, New Haven, Windham and Bethel have been marked by rowdy teachers and parents, outbursts and degrading comments. But rounds of applause and a cowbell were the only interruptions in New London.
"You have been very, very nice to me tonight," Malloy said. "You were very kind, and I believe that after this is all said and done, we're going to make substantial progress for the children in the state of Connecticut."
State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chair of the legislature's Education Committee, said prior to the event that the committee is prepared to make some changes to the governor's reform bill. She declined to identify those areas of the bill, citing how talks between committee members and the interested parties have been confidential. The committee is working with a March 28 deadline.
"We're working together to craft a bill that would still meet the intent of the bill," Stillman said. "It's still going to be education reform."
Day staff writer JC Reindl contributed to this report.