HARTFORD, Conn. – Insisting that “bold education reform” must be Connecticut’s top priority in 2012, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has directed Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor to work with the General Assembly to come up with sweeping changes for the legislative session that convenes Feb. 8. The governor has outlined six areas that need improvement.
Criticized last year by education advocates for ignoring pleas to fix what they say is a failing system, Malloy conceded that during his first year in office he was forced to focus on balancing the budget and union contracts.
But there have been a number of recent setbacks concerning education, including data showing that Connecticut has the widest achievement gap between students in the wealthiest and higher performing school districts and those in poor, urban schools.
That has prompted Malloy, Fairfield county state legislators, the state Department of Education, the Association of School Superintendents and other educators to call for immediate education reform.
They don’t all agree on what changes must be made, or how far reform should go, however.
“This is our moment … to hold ourselves to a higher standard where no child is left unsuccessful, no child fails to reach his or her potential, no state goes through what we did the last 22 years and ill-prepares its workforce," Malloy said during a recent summit at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
The six major changes sought by Malloy are:
• Enhance access to high-quality early-childhood education opportunities;
• Authorize the intensive interventions and enable the supports necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and districts;
• Expand the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters and others;
• Unleash innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success, especially in high-performing schools and districts;
• Ensure that schools have the best teachers and principals – working within a fair system that values their skill and effectiveness over seniority and tenure;
• Deliver more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need – provided that they embrace key reforms that position students for success.
Some local legislators say they support the governor’s initiatives but said they don’t believe he has provided enough details, and question whether the reforms go far enough.
“Our education system has been declining over the past decade, and that is having a devastating impact on the entire state because so many of our students are graduating from high school unprepared for college or the workforce,” said state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, who serves on the legislature’s Education Committee.
“A quality education system is fundamental to our state’s economy and standard of living,” said Lavielle, whose district includes Wilton, rated the second best school district in the state, and Norwalk, which includes schools ranked among Connecticut’s worst.
“If we do not provide the best teachers and schools to all of our students, Connecticut can neither build a sought-after, skilled workforce nor attract and retain companies that create jobs,” Lavielle said. “Additional funds or not, we must address the shortcomings of our education system."
Lavielle believes one of the keys to reform is changing the state funding formula to provide better assistance to school systems such as those in Norwalk and Stamford.
She said other large urban school systems, such as in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, receive considerable funding based on their lower economic status. But Norwalk and Stamford are “unfairly penalized” because the funding formula includes housing and real estate criteria, which have higher values in lower Fairfield County.
Interim Stamford Schools Superintendent Winifred Hamilton, a member of the state’s Association of Urban Superintendents, also believes education reform must include more funding for her district.
“I think it’s a disgrace, being one of the highest per capita states in the country and having the largest achievement gap,” said Hamilton. “Not only do we need more funding, we also must expand the school day and year to provide education for many students who need extra time. We also need to set better standards for teachers.”
Lavielle and Hamilton say education reform must include a better mechanism to evaluate teachers so that those who need more training can improve and those who don’t improve can be replaced.
“The governor has talked about tenure and seniority so that we can employ the best teachers for our students,” Hamilton said. “But to do that we need to have good professional development to provide more support for our teachers.”
Hamilton said she believes real education reform will happen.
“We are fortunate that he [Malloy] was Stamford’s mayor and attended the Stamford schools,” said Hamilton. “He understands how important education is in urban areas like Stamford to help these students escape the cycle of poverty.”