Lawmakers scrap tenure overhaul

Hartford — The legislature's Education Committee on Monday approved a scaled-back version of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's education reform plan that removes the most controversial parts pertaining to teachers.

This new version of Senate Bill 24 scraps Malloy's proposal to overhaul the teacher tenure system in public schools and link teachers' certification levels and salary guidelines to a new evaluation system based in part on student test scores.

The governor announced the tenure part of the bill in his February State of the State address, saying that today, "basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years."

Both state teachers' unions — the 43,000-member Connecticut Education Association and the 28,000-member AFT Connecticut — lobbied hard against the proposals that would have linked the evaluations with tenure and certification.

Members of the committee voted 28 to 5 in favor of the revised bill after nearly six hours of closed-door caucusing by the committee's Democrats. Co-chair Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, and Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, all voted for the bill.

The revised legislation keeps the evaluation system proposed in Malloy's bill that is calibrated to classroom "effectiveness" rather than the current standard of dismissal, "incompetency." However, the evaluations wouldn't affect tenure.

Teachers currently attain tenure after working four years in the same district. Tenured teachers get their contracts automatically renewed each year and can be dismissed only for one of six reasons: "inefficiency or incompetence," layoffs, insubordination, moral misconduct, disability or another "due and sufficient cause."

The new version of the bill mandates a formal study on the idea of linking tenure and certification to the evaluations. The study would be headed up by Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and completed by next year.

Sen. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said this compromise allows time to see how the new evaluations work out.

"There was serious discomfort among many, many legislators about tying someone's ability to stay in the profession directly to an evaluation system that has yet to be vetted," Fleischmann said.

He noted that the bill does speed up the termination process for dismissing bad teachers, reducing the maximum time to 115 days from the current 155 days.

The five nay votes on Monday came from Republicans. State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, called the bill "watered-down" and "a weakened document that has been stripped of almost all of the governor's and the commissioner's proposals."

"To say that many of us are extremely disappointed would be an understatement," she added.

After the meeting, Stillman said she strongly disagrees with the "watered-down" notion.

"I think it's a clarifying version of the governor's bill," she said. "There are some really good things in this bill."

Stillman said members of Malloy's administration indicated in recent days that they support postponing the linkage between the evaluation system and teacher tenure and certification.

"I think there's a better balance now," Stillman said.

The Malloy administration released a statement pointing out how Monday's vote was just an early step in the legislative process. The language of the bill could change as it goes through other committees.

"Members of this administration will continue to work with legislators and other key stakeholders until there is a bill that represents meaningful education reform," his senior advisor, Roy Occhiogrosso, said.

The current bill emerged from a weekend of long, late-night meetings between the committee co-chairs and representatives of the state teachers unions. Also participating at times were Commissioner Pryor and Malloy's Chief of Staff Mark Ojakian.

Republican party leaders have criticized the committee co-chairs for shutting out their members from meetings to finalize the bill's details.

"The people of the state of Connecticut should demand more from their elected representatives than sitting behind a closed door, meeting with lobbyists and writing a bill and asking the lobbyists if they approve of the bill before they write it," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

But Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said it would be wrong to view the changes in the bill as lawmakers' capitulation to the unions.

"I think the teachers in the back-home meetings, meetings with their legislators and pointing out their concerns, really are what moved them (the legislators), because they listened to their constituents," Levine told a gathering of reporters.

Mikutel called the legislation "a good first step to achieving educational equality," and Reynolds said it was a great start and could have a significant long-term effect.

"This legislation isn't just about achievement for achievement's sake," Reynolds said. "The very economic future of our state rests in the balance."

Excised from the bill was a proposal aimed at encouraging more school district consolidations by penalizing small, high-spending districts. That concept would instead be studied.

"There was not much support for that proposal," Fleischmann said.

The now-scuttled consolidation provision would have begun in the 2015-16 school year and applied to any school district with fewer than 1,000 students that exceeded the state average spending by 10 percent or more. Preston was among the 18 school districts on the list.

The bill does include Malloy's proposal for $50 million in additional Education Cost Sharing grant funds and doubles to 1,000 the number of new early childhood education slots in needy school districts.

It retains a scaled-back version of Malloy's "Commissioner's Network" plan for turning around the lowest-performing schools. The network would have 10 openings instead of 25 and kick off this summer.

The bill includes a revamped certification system that creates a new "distinguished educator" designation. Malloy's initial proposal called this a "master" teacher.

To become "distinguished," a teacher must teach for at least five years, hold a master's degree and have some additional education, such as training in coaching teachers.

Those who attain the level of "distinguished educator" can mentor other teachers or take on leadership responsibilities in their school. Distinguished educators could receive additional compensation from their district, provided their district agrees to the extra pay in collective-bargaining.

The legislation weakens the governor's plans for alternative schools. Malloy sought to increase the state's annual per-student grant from $9,400 per student to $11,000, but the new level would be $10,500.

It would also not become an absolute requirement for local school districts to pay state charter schools $1,000 in annual tuition for each of their resident students who attend the charters.

j.reindl@theday.com

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