The governor’s chief of staff is optimistic that a vote on the omnibus education reform bill could happen later this week.
Mark Ojakian, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s chief of staff, said Monday that discussions this weekend went well and he is hopeful the bill may be ready later this week for debate by the Senate.
Ojakian is involved in the discussions between lawmakers and the administration and also was in charge of negotiations between the administration and the state employee unions last year.
One of the sticking points for legislative leaders in the education debate has been how union contracts are treated in the legislation.
Senate President Donald Williams said Friday that there is a threshold question they need to have answered as to “whether you can force the reopening of a contract.”
He said when the governor sought concessions last year from the state employee unions, the unions had to agree to reopen those contracts. So the question lawmakers need to have answered is: “Can you force a union to reopen a contract, if the contract has not expired?”
Lawmakers have asked the Malloy administration for legal support for that idea, Williams said. But he declined to offer any more specifics on points of negotiations between the two sides.
Malloy, who has been meeting with stakeholders in the 30 lowest performing school districts to gain support for his proposal, said Friday that the current arbitration process is too lengthy.
“Getting to the point of adopting a turnaround model may require some changes and that needs to be addressed. Arbitration as you know is a very timely process,” Malloy told reporters Friday. “Do I think arbitration is a way to settle that issue? No. But let me be specific. If this bill passes and we’re going to step in and start turning around these schools in September, there’s not enough time to do it the way it’s proposed.”
But Malloy said he doesn’t object to the unions having a role in the process.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, pointed out that teacher contracts were changed in that city to accommodate the new teacher evaluation process and turnaround school model.
“In some ways New Haven is a model for what we’re going to do at the state level,” Looney said last week.
Malloy, who has been negotiating the legislation with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, said, “In private sessions Democrats and Republicans alike know we need to make change.”
But “Making change is difficult and I’m well cognizant of that fact,” Malloy said. “On the other hand making change is required of us all when it comes to this.”
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said Monday that “discussions are still ongoing,” but he declined further comment.
Last week, CTNewsjunkie obtained a copy of the eight-page summary of a new draft of the legislation being circulated by lawmakers around the Capitol.
Williams said the summary included “many of the changes that were made to the Education Committee bill, but not all the changes.”
Lawmakers are trying to find a solution that makes a difference, Williams said. “Not just something that is, you know, part of the latest education policy fashion or trend, we’ve been down this road before.”
Williams cited the federal No Child Left Behind law, which was supposed to fundamentally change the education system.
“In point of fact, it just created an atmosphere of teaching to the test, branding many schools [as] ‘failing’ when they weren’t failing. Other schools that were failing didn’t get the financial resources that were originally promised,” he said.
Most people agree that No Child Left Behind has been a failure, Williams said. Connecticut lawmakers don’t want to repeat those mistakes and “embrace reform for reform’s sake,” he said.
Williams declined to comment on what sticking points may remain between the governor’s office and lawmakers.
“Obviously, we had some policy disagreements or else we would have passed the governor’s bill right out of the box. These disagreements are fair, reasonable. It’s my expectation that we will have resolved all of those in the not-too-distant future,” he said.
Looney said lawmakers have been able to work with Malloy on a number of issues, so there’s no reason to think the same can’t be accomplished with education.
“We’ve worked in close partnership with a Democratic governor, so we expect to continue to do that on issues that are easy and issues that are hard,” he said.
But the process is frustrating for those on the outside.
“Closed-door negotiations have dominated the process, and no new policy language has publicly emerged for legislators to vet,” Patrick Riccards, CEO of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, wrote in an email Monday.
“The reality of the ‘Year for Education Reform’ is that we appear no closer to enacting laws to help our school children today than we were at the start of the legislative session,” Riccards said.
The state’s two teacher unions and the teachers that belong to them held a two-day rally outside the Capitol last week to make sure their voices weren’t lost in the debate. Teachers are still concerned about several aspects of the legislation, including how it will impact tenure and certification.
Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.