Hartford — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy added his signature Tuesday to a 185-page education reform bill that boosts state education spending by $100 million, toughens the evaluation process for teachers and creates turnaround programs for low performing schools and districts, including New London and Norwich.
"We are finally addressing what I truly believe is the civil rights issue of our lifetime," Malloy said in a victory speech before a packed meeting room in the Capitol.
Later in the day, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a statement that commended Connecticut for enacting "meaningful education reforms."
"I know the negotiations on S.B. 458 were difficult, but Governor Malloy and the legislature, business, unions, educators, and advocates were committed to begin fixing what is broken in public schools," the statement said.
Schoolchildren and lawmakers from both parties crowded around Malloy's desk at the late morning ceremony, including Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.
Also present was state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor and leaders of the two state teachers' unions: AFT Connecticut and the Connecticut Education Association. The unions had opposed parts of Malloy's original education proposal this winter, including plans that could have authorized the breaking of union contracts, subjected failing schools to privatization and forced some underperforming teachers out of the profession.
But union leaders had since praised the final version of the bill as a fair compromise. The legislation easily passed both chambers of the General Assembly last week.
New London and Norwich are among the 30 new low performing "Alliance Districts" that altogether will receive 80 percent of the total $50 million in additional state education dollars for districts. New London schools will get a $809,000 bump in state aid, and Norwich schools will get $1 million.
Stillman said city governments must use this extra money for education only.
"It's not an opportunity for the city to cut the education budget accordingly," Stillman said. "It is to be on top of whatever is budgeted by the cities."
Another new turnaround program in the law, dubbed the "Commissioner's Network," targets the 25 worst performing individual schools in the state. State officials have yet to pick those schools.
Malloy had declared education reform as his top priority for the 2012 legislative session. He unveiled his first proposal in his February State of the State address.
But two months later, Malloy threatened to veto the revised bill that came out of Stillman's education committee. Her committee scaled back Malloy's most controversial plans, which Stillman described as offensive to the many classroom teachers who approached her with concerns.
Nevertheless, Stillman said she was pleased with the final version of the bill that emerged last week after a final weekend of negotiations between the Malloy administration and legislative leaders.
"Change will not occur overnight," Malloy said at the ceremony. "It will take some number of months and years for us to accomplish what we can hopefully accomplish. But the long debate is over.
"The new beginning has just begun. We will win this battle. We will improve our schools. We will increase the achievement of our students."
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio enjoyed a front row seat at the ceremony. He was invited to attend after having advocated for the governor's education initiatives.
"We're happy for the new funding, but we're also happy for the reforms and the possibility for reform that this bill offers," he said.
Finizio said he is in talks with state officials about what exactly the education law will mean for New London schools.
"The commissioner, the governor and the governor's chief of staff have all expressed a very particular interest in New London," he said.
Pryor said the "core components" of Malloy's original bill made it in the law, and in some cases were strengthened.
"We're very pleased with the outcome," he said.
Pryor said his office is fielding more interest from school districts than there is space available for a program to try out the law's new performance evaluations for teachers and administrators. The evaluations will be a pilot program this fall in eight to 10 district before being rolled out statewide in 2013-14.
The evaluations will then be linked to an educator's employment.