Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Connecticut could have fix for nation's ailing schools

By DeWayne Wickham
Nobody’s calling what Connecticut just did the second “Great Compromise,” but in time it might be remembered as something akin to the agreement that settled the biggest problem this nation’s Founding Fathers faced.

In 1787, Roger Sherman, a Connecticut delegate to the Constitutional Convention produced that first compromise. It settled the argument over how states would be represented in the U.S. Congress by proposing the creation of two houses. In one, states would have equal representation; in the other, representation would be based on each state’s population.

This month, Connecticut’s Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a compromise bill that may be a blueprint for meaningful education reform in the other 49 states. The bill, which passed with near- unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats, is a broad attack on the state’s troubled public schools.

In Connecticut, the academic achievement gap between poor kids and children from affluent families is the worst in the nation. And, as in many other parts of the country, black and Hispanic youngsters are more likely to come from poor urban households, while white schoolchildren are more likely to be part of affluent, suburban families.

Recognizing the dire consequences of failing to fix this problem, the governor and legislators overcame partisan bickering and produced a law that also won the backing of public school administrators and teachers’ unions.

The law authorizes nearly $100 million in new funding for the state’s troubled schools, 1,000 more pre-school slots for students, grants to help low-performing schools recruit new teachers and a new evaluation process for administrators, and also teachers, that for them is linked to how they receive tenure and can be dismissed.

The wakeup call for Connecticut’s lawmakers came late last year when the state failed for the third time to win a “Race to the Top” grant — from the federal government.

“Our state’s positioning has weakened to the point that we are not competitive in national grant competitions like the recent Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge,” Malloy said in a letter to lawmakers. “Worse Connecticut’s poor and minority students are less prepared for success than their peers in the vast majority of other states.”

Malloy and lawmakers from both parties understand that they cannot get a long-term reduction in the state’s unemployment rate without a better educated workforce. They know that fixing the state’s broken schools is a win-win proposition for both political parties and the constituencies they serve.

“Meaningful education reform is an issue not just in Connecticut, but across the nation. If politicians, parents, teachers and community leaders can come together in Connecticut to initiate positive change, other states may be able to profit from this example,” said William Harvey, dean of the School of Education at North Carolina A&T State University.

He’s right.

To maintain its global economic and political leadership, this nation has to fix the education “problems it has allowed to fester for too long,” a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations reported in March. Led by Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of State, and Joel Klein, an ex-head of New York City’s school system, it called for a “national security readiness audit” to demonstrate the seriousness of this problem.

And just as this nation did 225 years ago, it could find the solution to one of its most vexing problem in a Connecticut compromise.


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