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Education Committee Passes 9 Of 10 School Reform Proposals From Black And Puerto Rican Caucus

By STEVEN GOODE

March 26, 2010

HARTFORD - The legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus got nine of its 10 proposals for school reform passed by the education committee Wednesday, a signal, its members said, of increasing interest in reform and the caucus's growing influence.

State Rep. Jason Bartlett, D-Danbury, a member of the caucus, called it a historic vote. "People voted their conscience and that makes for good policies," he said.

Bartlett and the caucus introduced the package of legislation last month. It's designed to close the state's achievement gap between poor minority students and more affluent white students, the largest gap in the country. The nine surviving points in the plan are:

Link teacher evaluations to student progress.

Establish alternative routes to certification for principals.

Offer incentives for students to take advanced placement courses.

Appoint a committee to study the achievement gap.

Create a "parent trigger," giving parents the ability to make substantial changes at failing schools.

Mandate two annual parent-teacher conferences.

Expand online courses and credit recovery programs.

Use more grant money for adult education.

Count school population in March to give schools an incentive to keep students enrolled.

The other point, a proposal to give tax incentives to effective teachers, was pulled from the legislation, but Bartlett and other caucus members said they're confident that the rest of the package, including the controversial "parent trigger" provision, will be approved by the appropriations committee and sent to a vote by the full legislature.

"We don't want to pretend we're doing something," Bartlett said. "We want real reform. That's what this is all about."

But the legislation faces strong opposition from teacher unions as well as from a competing bill sponsored by the two co-chairmen of the education committee, who have set forth a version they think will be more palatable to more legislators.

Gwen Samuel, chairwoman of the State of Black Connecticut Alliance, said she was pleasantly surprised that the caucus not known for its power to get legislation passed was able to advance its agenda out of the education committee largely intact. She credited the caucus's education committee members for holding their ground in the face of pressure from unions and the committee co-chairmen, state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, and state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden.

"I was told going in that the bill was going to die and there would be no parent trigger," Samuel said.

State Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, said the caucus has become more forceful in the legislature because its members are more organized and focused on policy.

"Although we disagree, we work together," McCrory said. He said the caucus has built support outside the legislature by reaching out to the community and putting forth legislation its constituents want.

Bartlett said Puerto Rican caucus members such as state Reps. Hector Robles, D-Hartford, Kelvin Roldan, D-Hartford, and Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, also deserve credit for providing a voice and leadership.

"There's a lot of talent there. They want a legacy of getting something done," he said.

Fleischmann, who voted yes on moving the legislation out of committee, credited caucus members on the committee and said that the plan has merits, including the focus on advanced placement and online credit recovery. But he and others have questions about other sections, especially a proposal to form parent-dominated school governance committees at failing schools and the parent trigger. Under current provisions, the trigger would be available in 96 schools in the state which have been labeled as failing under federal guidelines for five years or more.

"I don't think there's any evidence out there to suggest that having parents take over a school will close the achievement gap," Fleischmann said.

Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Connecticut, said her organization is working to seek a compromise on several aspects of the bill, but added that the teachers union will not support the parent trigger. The unions have said the provision reduces the scope of a parent's responsibility and involvement in their children's education to a simple petition campaign.

But Palmer added that the union does not oppose parental involvement.

"We want them in the schools," she said. "They're essential to our success."

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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