CT Senate Passes Education Overhaul, But Critics Say Bill Ignores Learning Outcomes


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Expanded opportunities for high schoolers, funding for educators, and attempts to improve school climate by addressing bullying are central pieces of a major education bill passed by the State Senate on Thursday. 

But the road to reach an agreement wasn’t easy.

The preceding five-hour debate exposed fundamental differences in opinion about key problems that students struggle with and how to tackle them. Republicans argued that, contrary to the sections of the bill focused on modifying disciplinary practices and improving climate in the classrooms, districts should instead focus on core academics, like reading and mathematics. 

The largest criticisms also included beliefs that the bill didn’t do enough to address educational outcomes in the districts. 

“I have listened to conversations year after year after year about the need to spend more money on education,” State Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown, said. “But if we don’t ever get to the point where we demand a change in outcomes with that additional funding, then all we’re doing is pouring money into a hole in the ground with no expectation of a better outcome. And that’s wrong. That’s wrong on a whole bunch of levels.”

Other Republicans agreed. State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said he felt student challenges with truancy, mental health and behaviors could be related to lower academic achievement. 

“If I were designing [this bill] … it would probably primarily focus on academic achievement specifically,” he said. “I think kids understand that deep down, maybe part of the other problems that we’re seeing in schools are emanating from the fact that student achievement has fallen, that they can feel that deep down and they might act out in different ways.” 

Fazio noted that reading proficiency levels in Connecticut had dropped from 43 percent of fourth graders in 2013 to 35 percent this year, and 75 percent of elementary students living in cities were also unable to read “effectively.” 

State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, added that only four school districts in the state have 80 percent of their students able to read at grade level. 

“Like you need the right to vote and the right to do other things in this country, in this state, as a child, especially a person of color, you need to have the right to read,” McCrory said. “And unfortunately in this state of Connecticut, we are not doing a very good job providing children of color and poor people the ability to read.” 

The current bill grants districts extra time to implement the new “Right to Read” program, which the General Assembly passed in an earlier session. The program requires school districts to choose from a handful of state-approved curriculum used to teach reading to elementary school students. 

McCrory said he agreed with Fazio about the failure to provide a quality education for students.

“It is a travesty what we give Black, Brown and poor children in this state of Connecticut,” he said. “If you look at our scores, you’re not from here. You would think that we’re doing an outstanding job. But if you take a deeper dive and analyze those numbers, you would be embarrassed.”

School Climate and Discipline

A number of Republicans also objected to portions of the bill addressing school climate improvements, particularly regarding the use of restorative justice, the role of school resource officers, and requirements for districts to have a school climate coordinator and committees to conduct surveys about the atmosphere in the school building. 

Fazio and State Sen. Paul Ciccarella, R-North Haven, criticized the requirement of staff members to use restorative justice. Fazio said surveys from other districts that used restorative justice practices found they did not improve school climate.  

The bill also requires the state’s School Discipline Collaborative to address the disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions as a form of discipline. But McCrory argued the majority of those disciplined were young Black and Brown boys in high school. He said these students were sometimes placed in questionable alternative education settings.

But Ciccarella said he knew of schools where some students constantly disrupted classes, and, in some cases, alternative education settings might be the best choice.

“I could see if somebody’s constantly getting kicked out of school or class, that’s going to impede on their learning, and that’s something that does need to be addressed,” Ciccarella said. “But we also have to take into consideration, though, the students that are there to learn and that are constantly getting interrupted in that process because of a group of bad actors that want to continue to have outbursts or disrupt the class. That’s something that does need to be taken into consideration.”

Regardless, McCrory said it was critical to consider school climate in light of the effects the pandemic had on students. He said it’s critical to have training for teachers, staff and social workers so they understand that the behaviors they’re witnessing may not be simple bullying, but rather a trauma response.  

“We have to look at the fact that some of these children, and many of our children, have mental health issues, and these are children are coming out of COVID 19,” he said. “Many of them have seen their family members lose lives. Many of them [have] seen their families unemployed in situations they’ve never seen before. … We want to make sure we provide the proper nourishment and support, but also structure for our children when they’re in their classrooms.” 

Trainings and Grants

Despite their differences, Republicans and Democrats expressed resounding agreement with portions of the bill that enhanced workforce development. 

The bill creates a grant program for districts that pays $1,000 to each student that participates in a “pre-apprenticeship program” for careers in manufacturing and trades. For high schoolers interested in health care fields, the bill provides tuition assistance so they can attend a dual credit program with a college or university. 

“I have a friend whose child was handed their associate’s degree prior to their high school diploma,”  Berthel said. “The opportunity for that child to be able to do that, where they’ve now got half their bachelor’s degree behind them, along with a high school diploma, is amazing.” 

The bill also allows school districts to work with the aerospace industry to develop a training program for high schoolers, and requires the CT Technical Education and Career System to consider creating a high school specializing in aerospace advanced manufacturing.

Berthel praised the bill as a way to retain students in Connecticut and fill needed positions. Berthel, whose district includes Oxford Airport, said he was talking to an aviation business owner who confessed they were unable to find young people who wanted to become pilots or jet engine mechanics. 

“We must address, in real time, with real solutions, workforce development in Connecticut,” Berthel said. “We need to be curating young people in our high schools – maybe even in our middle schools – for the many amazing jobs that are available from employers right here in Connecticut.” 

State Sen. Saud Anwar, D- East Hartford, also praised the workforce development component of the bill, underscoring the need for health care workers and noting his district — which contains Pratt & Whitney — was a manufacturing center for the aerospace industry. 

“Everybody talks about the Silicon Valley. We have our own aerospace valley right here in Connecticut, which is the finest in the world for the aerospace work that happens,” Anwar said. “We do need to create a pipeline. We do need to create the efforts to make sure the workforce pipeline continues on, and this bill is looking into making sure that there’s an opportunity for our young boys and girls to make that as their career.” 

The bill also requires the state to create a curriculum for high school students who wish to graduate with a paraeducator certification. 

Additionally, the bill revamps a scholarship program for minority teachers, offering $10,000 each year to people in teacher preparation programs. Under the bill, teachers that graduate but don’t remain to teach in Connecticut will have to pay back the scholarship.

Another provision creates a teaching apprenticeship program, meaning that people using a nontraditional pathway are able to teach in classrooms while getting their certification, without having to first pass an exam.

“Some of the barriers we have created in the past really, really harmed a lot of individuals that could have come to our classroom,” McCrory said. “There’s no data that says that … just because you can pass an exam, you can properly educate children in this state, especially children from certain communities. … Instead of passing a test, I want to see how you can work in a classroom with children. I want to see how you can operate with families.” 

Adjunct professors can also teach in high schools under the bill, which Berthel said would help alleviate teacher shortage issues, as well as give students the opportunity to hear from professionals. 

Several senators also highlighted a part of the bill that requires the state to publish detailed data breaking down how districts use state and local money. 

“We send billions of dollars a year … out of our state budget for school funding,” State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said. “We all … of course support public education. But we should ensure that those precious and finite dollars are being spent in the best way possible, that it’s making a difference. … We have to ensure that when we are spending those dollars in Connecticut, we are expecting the highest quality.” 

The Senate voted 24-12 to advance the education bill to the House for a vote.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.