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New Bill Gives Aid To Struggling Schools

July 24, 2007

When people learn that Connecticut's House of Representatives debated a bill at 3 a.m., they tend to assume we had something to hide.

"What the heck did you guys do at that hour?" is a question I often hear from almost anyone who lives a normal schedule.

The truth is that the General Assembly's deadlines often force us to vote at strange hours, and that bills passed late at night sometimes ought to be spotlighted in the morning - if only anyone had the energy.

A case in point: At 3:34 a.m. on Saturday, June 23, the House passed legislation, which was later passed by the Senate and signed by the governor, that fundamentally altered the role state government will play in helping struggling schools to succeed.

But because this truly remarkable bill passed at such a late hour, neither I nor any stakeholders involved in its drafting have told its story - even though it's arguably more important than the major increase in state education funding it accompanied.

Under this law, the state's commissioner of education will now do an educational assessment of any school system or school that fails to make academic progress for two successive years.

And the commissioner is empowered to ensure that the school or school district implements measures we know improve student performance, including extended school days, weekend tutoring and summer school.

For school systems that fail to make progress for four years, the commissioner will put together an action plan that may include more sweeping improvements: creating a new curriculum, moving dollars from failed programs to more effective ones, replacing struggling personnel with star performers or - as a last resort - appointing a trustee to run the district in place of the superintendent.

These steps put Connecticut in conformance with the troubled federal No Child Left Behind Act - but, unlike NCLB, will bring and fund changes that we know improve student performance.

It's likely that some leaders of struggling school systems will object to this new law - because it empowers people outside the district to establish programs and supports if the district does not.

But, for any of us working to improve education in Connecticut, the people who must remain at the forefront are the children in schools now failing to give them the education that is their right under our state constitution.

In other key areas, too, our new law increases support for local programs and strengthens our focus on accountability and results, with critical, effective steps that lie well outside the scope of NCLB:

It establishes funding for 2,000 more poor children to receive early childhood education over the next two years, and provides these programs with technical assistance and professional development, ensuring high quality.

It will, for the first time since the inception of Connecticut's Early Reading Success program, measure the impact of local programs. By fall 2008, school systems funding programs that don't improve children's reading will have to switch to a proven program or forfeit state funding.

And Connecticut's After School Program initiative will now require grant-winners to track their results, so that we can measure impact and support the most effective programs.

To their credit, the state's two largest teachers' unions - the Connecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers - took the lead in a key area of reform: They pledged to bring "CommPACT schools" to Connecticut. Teachers in CommPACT schools may waive sections of their collective bargaining agreements - such as those governing the length of the school day - in exchange for reforming and running the school. Under our new law, CommPACT schools will receive field support from the University of Connecticut's NEAG School of Education.

Connecticut's State University System has also stepped up to help struggling schools. In the Danbury area, Western Connecticut State University has successfully partnered with local high schools to address core subject-matter deficiencies. The legislature has now empowered the state education department to work with CSU to expand this model to other regions.

Clearly, Connecticut's new educational accountability law sets up a wide array of tools to help turn around struggling schools and school districts. Together, education stakeholders must now work together to begin a new day for education reform in our state - using this law that arrived in the dark of night.

State Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, is co-chairman of the General Assembly's Education Committee. He is also chief operating officer of SpeedReading People LLC, a communications training company based in Hartford and Boston.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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