During the 2015 legislative session, I had the privilege of serving for the first time as ranking member of the General Assembly’s Education Committee. One of the legislature’s largest committees, its work affects every community in the state. While education should not be a partisan subject, the committee’s work has sometimes been affected by political differences in past years. This year, however, I was pleased that building a good working relationship with the committee co-chairs and drawing on the knowledge of a particularly strong group of members helped us find many areas of common ground and pass a range of bills with full bipartisan support that should have a positive impact on our state’s K-12 education system.
The new laws address a wide variety of issues:
Literacy. To address what I believe is the issue most critical for our school system’s progress, early literacy, the state Department of Education must create the position of director of reading initiatives to oversee all literacy programs statewide, and most particularly reading in grades K-3.
Mandate relief. I was very pleased by progress in this area, where I have been pushing for change for several years. School districts may now apply to the education commissioner for waivers from costly and unwieldy mandates by proposing innovative ideas to replace them. A key goal is for successful waivers to lead to further mandate relief legislation. Another new law affects the minimum budget requirement (MBR), which restricts districts from budgeting less in any year for education than in the previous year. The new law gives school boards more flexibility to control their budgets by loosening the MBR restrictions for many districts with declining enrollment, and eliminating them altogether for the highest-performing districts.
Testing and student assessments. Starting with the 2015-16 academic year, the SAT will replace the SBAC test for all 11th graders in Connecticut. The objectives: reducing students’ stress, increasing their learning time in the classroom, and, since the SAT will now be free, making college accessible to more students. A Mastery Examination Committee will also address the question of how much and what kind of testing is appropriate in other grades.
Helping students with dyslexia. Teacher preparation programs must now include comprehensive training in identifying and addressing dyslexia. The state Department of Education must also designate a staff member to help parents and schools identify and provide appropriate interventions for students with dyslexia.
Reciprocity for teachers. To ensure that qualified teachers are available statewide in shortage areas like bilingual education, it will now be easier for out-of-state teachers to obtain certification in Connecticut. The new law also requires more active recruitment of minority teachers and teacher training in cultural competency.
Charter schools. Serious management problems at one charter school organization led to a proposal for a long moratorium on opening any new charter schools. Working collaboratively, we crafted legislation that significantly strengthens charter school oversight and requires the state Department of Education to develop a cohesive plan for creating new charter schools, but imposes no delays on opening new ones. The new law raises standards for management and transparency, while preserving school choice in the communities that need it most.
Student health and safety. To improve students’ protection from abuse and neglect, a new law increases reporting and training requirements for school employees who are mandated reporters. Another new law expands care for students with seizure disorders by allowing specially designated and trained school employees to administer emergency medication when the school nurse is absent or unavailable.
While these new laws provide important improvements to our education system, there is still much work left to do — for example, in closing Connecticut’s achievement gap, meeting growing needs for special education, and addressing funding inequities for communities like Norwalk and Stamford. During the next session, I also look forward to revisiting and improving the student data privacy legislation that we came very close to passing this year.
As we prepare for the 2016 session, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions. As always, please don’t hesitate to contact me at gail.lavielle@cga.ct.gov if you’d like to discuss education, or any other issue, further.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle represents Wilton, Norwalk, and Westport. She is ranking member of the General Assembly’s Education Committee.