State Sen. Stillman defends revisions in education reform package

Hartford - Democratic Sen. Andrea Stillman of Waterford spent her Sunday evening last week on the top floor of the Capitol office building, crafting what arguably has become the biggest setback to date for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's legislative agenda.

Joining her at the conference table were bill-writing lawyers and Stillman's fellow Education Committee co-chairman, Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford.

If they cared to sleep that night before their morning committee meeting and vote, the veteran lawmakers had only a few hours to decide what to do about the controversial parts of Senate Bill 24 - the governor's 163-page education reform package.

Negotiations earlier that weekend between the Malloy administration and the two state teachers' unions failed to produce any grand compromise. That left the hard decisions to them.

By night's end, the pair had finished a dramatic rewrite to Malloy's bill that has since drawn praise from the teachers' unions for fairness and criticism from reform activists and school administrators' groups, who dismiss the revised bill as "watered down" legislation that better serves union members than schoolchildren.

Governor: 'A work in progress'

The Education Committee passed the new Senate Bill 24 on a 28-5 vote Monday. But as Malloy soon emphasized, the language in the bill isn't final and likely will change again in the legislative process.

The bill has until 12:01 a.m. on May 10 to be voted on by the full House and Senate. And Malloy indicated Friday that he won't sign the bill if it lacks what he considers to be real reforms to the teacher tenure system in public schools.

"This is a work in progress," the governor said last week. "I never served in the legislature, but I did make sausage for a summer job, and it's a bit like that."

Yet for the moment, the most anticipated state education bill in decades stands as what emerged from Stillman's committee.

A coalition of five education groups and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association issued a joint statement last week criticizing the revised bill. The coalition includes principals, superintendents and charter school activists who say they wrongly were left out of the process.

"The new version of S.B. 24 fails to move forward with several of the bold proposals Governor Malloy put forth, and it signals a lack of urgency to fix the fundamental issues that plague Connecticut's public school system," their statement read. "The result is a bill that reflects compromises that appear to be brought on by pressure from the teacher unions."

In an interview, Stillman denied the coalition's claim - echoed by Republican leaders and numerous editorial and blog writers - that she and Fleischmann "capitulated" to the powerful teachers' unions in the final hours.

"I don't think that was it at all," said the state senator, whose district includes New London, East Lyme, Montville, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Salem and Waterford. "I'd like to set the record straight."

A 'facilitating' role

For Stillman, the decision to scale back the governor's most ambitious proposals was born from numerous conversations with teachers and from reading their emails and hand-written letters.

"Who better to give you advice on how to run a classroom than those people who are in it?" she said.

She heard from teachers at group meetings about the bill, during and after public hearings, and some teachers even approached her in the aisles of Stop & Shop and the Waterford CVS to share their thoughts. Stillman said these teachers care deeply about quality schools and closing the achievement gap, but many felt parts of the original bill were misguided and might not work.

"I was hearing from people who are in the classroom doing the work, who are trying to handle children who come from dysfunctional homes, and disruptive children, and children who are mainstreamed into schools, and children who want to learn but can't because the teacher can't attend to everybody's need at once," Stillman said.

Some of these teachers feared losing their jobs or income if they scored a low mark one year on the new evaluations. There were other concerns as well. "I couldn't believe how many teachers spoke about the fact that principals are not always being honest in their evaluations," Stillman said.

"I think it's the most difficult job to be a teacher and manage all those young minds - especially in the public schools," the senator said. "And it's very different in charter schools - many of them - because many of them cherry-pick the kids they take."

But the Stillman-Fleischmann capitulation theory gathered force amid reports that the co-chairmen participated in lengthy closed-door meetings last weekend with the state teachers' unions - the Connecticut Education Association and AFT Connecticut.

Stillman confirmed that those meetings with union leaders occurred March 24 at an office building near the Capitol. But she maintains that she and Fleischmann generally had a "facilitating" role in eleventh-hour negotiations between Malloy administration officials and the unions regarding the two most controversial parts of the proposal: a teacher tenure overhaul and a new turnaround program for low-performing schools.

"We were just sitting there, taking notes, sharing copies of things and listening in," Stillman said.

The negotiations between the two parties ended at 1:30 a.m. without a deal, leaving Stillman and Fleischmann to reconvene that Sunday night to rewrite the bill.

"We sat down and filled in the blanks," Stillman recalled. There was no one present at that point from administration or union ranks, she said.

Up in their conference room, the committee leaders discarded Malloy's proposal for an immediate overhaul to the teacher tenure system that would have linked certification and salary guidelines to a new evaluation system.

Tenure reform

The full details of the evaluation system are still being finished by a council of teachers, principals and school board members. But the council agreed this winter to a framework that's 45 percent tied to student "learning indicators," with one-half of that based on standardized tests.

Another 40 percent is based on observations of teacher performance; 10 percent comes from peer or parent surveys, and 5 percent on student feedback or "whole-school" learning indicators.

Teachers currently gain tenure after working four years in the same district. Once tenured, they only can be dismissed for one of six reasons, including "inefficiency or incompetence."

Malloy's proposal called for a new, four-level performance scale that would make it easier to fire dismal teachers who are just coasting above incompetency. It required teachers to achieve two top ratings in three years, or a combination of three top or third-level ratings in five years.

Tenured teachers would then receive regular evaluations and could be dismissed for just one low rating or two second-level ratings in two consecutive years.

Stillman recalled her reluctance to proceed with Malloy's plan to link teacher tenure and certification to the new evaluations because the evaluation system has not yet been tried, and isn't even scheduled to be finished until late June.

"Just because a teacher might have a bad evaluation in one school, doesn't mean they should lose their license to teach," Stillman said, adding that she heard many stories of teachers who went on to great success after switching districts.

Calls were made that Sunday night, March 25, to Democratic leaders in the legislature, and Stillman and Fleischmann ultimately opted to "decouple" tenure from performance evaluations and instead have Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor head up a study about linking the new evaluations to teachers' employment status. The study must be completed by January.

"Our respective leadership in the House and the Senate suggested we just put in that we're going to study it," Stillman said. "So we thought, right now, that is the best way to write the bill." If the commissioner's study comes back positive, the legislature would have the option to act on it next year, she said.

They also significantly scaled back the proposed "Commissioner's Network" turnaround program that would have given Commissioner Pryor broad authority to reorganize 25 low-performing schools in the state.

Teachers unions feared that the program, as first proposed, would allow Pryor to break collective-bargaining contracts and could clear the way for management companies to swoop in and force teachers at those schools to reapply for their jobs.

The Stillman-Fleischmann rewrite delayed implementation of the Commissioner's Network by ordering another study. But the version of the bill that passed their committee included a last-minute amendment that allows Pryor to proceed this fall with 10 network schools, although without the authority to act unilaterally and compromise union contracts.

"That was perhaps the most interesting thing," Malloy said the day after the vote. "They apparently bought into the idea that there should be no Commissioner's Network. And then they understood that you can't go back to the people of Connecticut and say that we're going to tolerate the lowest performing schools years after year after year, so then they said 'do something about 10 of them,' but then they didn't give the tools that we need to do something about the 10 of them."

The Commissioner's Network suffered another blow Thursday when the Appropriations Committee revised Malloy's budget proposal by cutting the program's funding to $10.8 million from $22.9 million.

"That is a problem," Mark Ojakian, the governor's chief of staff, said Friday. "They clearly have made a statement as to where their funding priorities are."

Stillman said she believes her committee passed a good bill, yet she agrees with the governor that it likely will change between now and May. She noted how her committee doubled to 1,000 the new number of early childhood education slots in needy districts, and sped up the termination process for bad teachers from a maximum 155 days down to 115 days.

She acknowledged the bill contains less funding for alternative schools than first proposed, but still increases the state per-student funding levels. Some of that charter schools money was redirected to early education, she said.

Despite her role in diluting the governor's reform plan, Stillman said she and Malloy remain on good terms. They recently saw one another in the Capitol complex cafeteria. "We were very cordial with each other. He didn't show any animosity or anything, but he said 'we'll get it done.'"

Malloy was asked at a news conference Friday whether he would sign the education bill if it doesn't contain tenure reform. He replied that he wouldn't. "Evaluations have to mean something," the governor explained later. "And any package of reform that doesn't reference that is unacceptable."

j.reindl@theday.com

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