Members of the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus held a press conference Thursday to outline what their members could support in an education reform bill.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who chairs the caucus, said the caucus has reached consensus on several issues outlined in a one-page document that includes support for reconstituting low-achieving schools as state or local charter schools.
However, Rep. Toni Walker and Sen. Toni Harp, also of New Haven, told reporters that they’re not entirely on board, and that the document Holder-Winfield gave the media was never voted upon by the 19 members of the caucus. The two Toni’s said they agree with many of the concepts outlined in the document and believe most of it is included in the most recent draft of the bill. However, they pointed out that the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus were not working off the most recent draft of the bill.
As the co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee, Walker and Harp are members of legislative leadership and have been included in discussions with the Education Committee co-chairs who have been drafting, and re-drafting the bill.
“We really tried to ask them to wait until they could see the full bill,” Harp said, referring to the caucus.
But in the end, “We think they will be happy with some of what they see,” she said. Although “. . . there are some things they aren’t going to be happy with.”
There are a few sticking points which haven’t been settled yet, Harp and Walker said. What role charter schools will play and what changes will be made to collective bargaining are the two biggest sticking points still being negotiated behind closed doors.
“There’s been drafting going back and forth between the administration and leadership and the whole idea is compromise, so we’re trying to make the best compromise,” Walker said.
Holder-Winfield said he never expected lawmakers to stop working on various versions of the bill as the caucus went through the draft they had line-by-line.
“Obviously they’re continuing to work on the bill. That has nothing to do with what we were doing, which was looking at the two bills we had the latest copies of and responding and talking about what we want in the bill,” he said.
Holder-Winfield did not portray the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus position paper as supporting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s version over the Education Committee’s version, but the caucus document would restore in the legislation language for the commissioner’s authority to reconstitute a low-achieving school as a state or local charter, which is more in line with what Malloy had proposed.
He said the caucus wasn’t saying it supports charter schools over public schools, but it’s saying charter schools shouldn’t be excluded as an option.
“We did not plan to produce a piece of information that lined up with the governor. We got in the room as representatives of urban communities and decided by consensus what we thought would be best moving forward on education reform,” Holder-Winfield said.
The caucus position paper also called for the commissioner’s network schools to engage in “impact bargaining,” which would allow teachers to bargain working conditions such as longer school days outside of their larger contract.
Holder-Winfield said there were no conversations with Malloy, or anyone else outside the caucus, over the document.
“It would not make a lot of sense if the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus didn’t have a voice on this,” he said. “It’s not a matter of strategically doing it at this point. It’s just the way it organically happened.”
The members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus represent schools that will be impacted the most by education reform efforts, and Holder-Winfield wanted to make sure their voices were heard.
The proposal was praised by Connecticut Charter School Association President Michael Sharpe, who also heads Jumoke Academy in Hartford.
“I think it’s a very fair sort of midpoint that still impacts kids getting a hand up,” Sharpe said, also urging the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to take a stand on the issue.
Sharpe said 87 percent of the charter schools in Connecticut are outperforming the districts in which they sit.
“I want us to continue to allow charter schools to be a part of closing the achievement gap in Connecticut,” Sharpe said.
Immediately following the press conference, two Connecticut Education Association lobbyists approached Holder-Winfield to talk with him about the proposal. A CEA spokeswoman said the union wouldn’t be commenting on the proposal.
But AFT Connecticut offered a brief statement.
“AFT Connecticut represents teachers and other school personnel in many of the lowest performing districts and has worked with the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus over the last several years on a variety of education issues,” Sharon Palmer, president of AFT Connecticut, said. “We value their ideas and look forward to ongoing discussions with all legislators as we work toward education reform that improves education for every child in Connecticut.”