Hugh McQuaid photo

After several hours of debate the House unanimously approved a sweeping education reform proposal aimed at closing Connecticut’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap.

The chamber erupted in cheers as the vote board lit up green.

The bill now goes to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for approval. It passed the Senate 28-7 early Tuesday morning after a press conference late Monday during which Malloy stood with Democratic legislative leaders and announced that after months of negotiation they had reached a compromise.

Malloy didn’t get everything he wanted in the final bill, but he got more than legislative leaders initially wanted to give him after he shocked them with his opening day remarks regarding teacher tenure. 

The governor opened up the legislative session in February telling teachers, “basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.” The statement would haunt him for the next three months as he traveled the state holding public forums where teachers turned out in large numbers to voice their displeasure with Malloy’s plan.

At Monday’s press conference, Malloy he didn’t talk about how the revised legislation handled teacher tenure — except to say that the bill in its entirety upheld the six education principles he detailed last December.

Education reform advocates praised the legislation as a forward step toward changing the state’s educational achievement, and the state’s two teacher unions were content with how collective bargaining and tenure changes were handled.

Earlier today Malloy admitted to a New York radio show host that it got “a little dusty” for awhile, but it all worked out in the end. He said the bill doesn’t do away with tenure, but the compromise bill establishes an evaluation system that isn’t stopped by tenure.

“We don’t do away with tenure, but tenure doesn’t save you your job if you’re not performing at an acceptable level,” Malloy told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott.

Malloy’s plan would have required teachers to re-earn their tenure every five years, based on evaluations tied largely to student achievement. Under the proposal, new teachers would get tenure after three years if they earn two “exemplary” evaluations and after five years with three “proficient” or “exemplary” evaluations. 

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said the tenure situation described by Malloy in his opening remarks back in February is not what he’s witnessed as he went on to describe the legislation on the House floor Tuesday afternoon. The bill requires teachers to be evaluated on an annual basis, and their tenure will be based on their performance evaluations.

A teacher will be required to earn an “effective” evaluation to earn tenure after their first four years of teaching and in order to lose it they will have to receive an “ineffective” rating, but neither will be tied to certification or pay.

In addition, 8 to 10 schools will be asked to pilot an evaluation system using the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council’s guidelines, which are still being finalized. The evaluation process will then be assessed by the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education, and in the following year all districts will employ an evaluation system.

Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, R-Old Saybrook, said she hoped “that we might find how to craft that fair and equitable linkage of teacher evaluation to student learning.”

The state advisory council, which is finalizing the evaluation framework, has recommended that student performance should count as 45 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, another 40 percent should be based upon an administrator’s observation, and parent and student feedback should make up the rest.

Giuliano worried about what would happen to a hypothetical teacher named “Mrs. Fudge,” who she described as an excellent kindergarten teacher talented enough to take on autistic children and English Language Learners. Giuliano expressed concern that under an evaluation system, Mrs. Fudge may be viewed as a failing teacher if too much weight is given to student test scores.

Fleischmann did not address Giuliano’s concerns directly, but explained how the bill would treat evaluations.

“The goal of teacher evaluations should be to continuously improve and reform teaching so as to better educate our students,” Rep. Noreen Kokoruda, R-Madison, said quoting one of the teachers who contacted her during the past 90 days.

“There’s a lot to like in this bill,”  Kokoruda said, praising the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus for taking the initiative to release their own proposal and help those negotiating the bill to find compromise. 

“I feel it really was that caucus that got us back on track,” Kokoruda said.

The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus also was praised by national reform advocates, such as Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization that spent as much as $790,000 on advertising in favor of the governor’s original reform package.

“The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus stood up for reforms while the governor made clear he would veto anything that did not advance student interests,” an email to a StudentsFirst supporter reads. “This combination of political forces withstood an intense lobbying effort by those vested in the status quo, including the national NEA and AFT, who poured in resources and pulled out all the stops to try to derail reform in Connecticut.”

The teacher unions said their lobbying efforts pale in comparison and while they weren’t able to give an exact figure for how much they spent, they were confident they didn’t spend as much as StudentsFirst and other reform groups.

The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus released a position paper last week to urge those negotiating the bill behind closed doors to reach a consensus that included using charter schools and “impact bargaining,” which would allow teachers to bargain working conditions such as longer school days outside of their larger contract. That idea, along with a kindergarten to third grade reading initiative, was included in the final bill.

“I don’t know if it was us that changed things around,” said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “Some people realized you can be a Democrat, you can be progressive, you can be pro-teacher and still want to make sure reform is as strong as possible.”

Fleischmann bristled at the notion that the bill, with its 97 sections, was just one step forward. “It is more than a nice step. It is a giant leap which is long overdue,” Fleischmann said.

The teacher unions also praised the legislation.

“This will give teachers the support and training they need to be successful in their profession,” Sharon Palmer, president of AFT Connecticut, said.

She was joined in her praise by Phil Apruzzese, president of the Connecticut Education Association, who talked about the ups and downs of the past few months of debate.

“At its lowest point, the debate demonized teachers,” Apruzzese said. “Fortunately, with leadership in the Education Committee and in the House and Senate, the state turned a corner and put the emphasis on where it belongs: more pre-K, early literacy, health and social supports for disadvantaged students, respect for teachers bargaining rights, improved and fair teacher evaluation and dismissal, and access to innovative programs with proven track records.”