AFT Connecticut lured lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy downstairs Wednesday for some free ice cream and a little conversation.
Like most people at the state Capitol, the state’s two teacher unions are out of the loop as legislative leaders and members of the Malloy administration try to reach an agreement on the details of the omnibus education reform bill.
“We haven’t been in the room since the Education Committee bill came out,” said Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association. Like other lobbyists, CEA and AFT are relegated to the roped-off areas of the Capitol where they can talk to lawmakers as they walk by or grab them as they head for the restroom.
Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff, has been negotiating the bill with lawmakers. But he is unwilling to give any specifics about where the bill stands.
“We have been working very hard on reaching an agreement on real education reform,” Ojakian said Wednesday.
“That’s what we all want,” Loftus Levine, who was standing near him, was quick to add.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee, is also part of the conversations.
“We’re having a good exchange of ideas,” on how to handle the state’s lowest performing schools, Stillman said.
Those schools and what the state is able to do with them outside of a contract with the unionized teachers is one of the unanswered questions. Malloy’s bill would allow for the state to come in and change working conditions or hire a consulting firm to turn a school around. Legislative leaders — especially Sen. President Donald Williams — are opposed to allowing changes like that to happen without an agreement to reopen the teacher contract.
Meanwhile, the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus has spent the past few days behind closed-doors reading over a draft of the bill. The interpretation of the bill by those 19 lawmakers could make a difference in determining whether a bill is moved forward before May 9.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, chair of the caucus, said the group may emerge with a position Wednesday evening. But he warned people not to expect a document that says they agree with one side versus the other side.
He said they’ve been going through the bill section-by-section and will express their opinions on each.
“Ultimately we want a bill that works for everybody,” Holder-Winfield said.
Most of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus represent the lowest performing schools at the center of the debate, and whatever they decide could hold considerable sway over what happens with the bill.
“I just hope they get it done,” AFT Connecticut President Sharon Palmer said Wednesday afternoon, noting that there wasn’t much time left. She said she hopes they at least move forward with the things everyone agrees upon, such as the increased preschool slots.
Sen. Len Suzio, a Republican from Meriden and a former school board member, said he told Malloy that they should have done the education bill during a special session so that it could have been the sole focus of the legislature and wasn’t competing with hundreds of other bills.
“If you rush, you make mistakes,” Suzio said. And despite being one of the most conservative members of the state Senate, Suzio seems to sympathize with the teachers and their unions on this issue of tying evaluations to tenure.
He said if he was a teacher he would be having an “anxiety attack” if his job was going to be based on “an undefined evaluation system.”
The Performance Evaluation Advisory Council has adopted a framework for a statewide evaluation process, but that process and the rubrics it will create won’t be completed until June 30.
Teachers from New Haven, West Haven, Meriden, and Hartford were all at the Capitol on Wednesday to talk with lawmakers about how they’ve been handling their evaluations.
Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, who spoke earlier about the collaboration that went into the new evaluation system her school district adopted this week, asked the governor if he would visit a Hartford school without the news media to see what really happens in the classroom.
She said he seemed agreeable to the idea. But it’s unclear if there will be time before the legislature adjourns May 9.
With the legislature sprinting to the finish and conversations happening mainly behind closed doors, Johnson said waiting for them to pass education reform is like “waiting for a baby to be born.”