HARTFORD -- Wide-reaching education reform aimed at helping turn around failing schools with a combination of new money, new supports and a stronger state hand unanimously passed the state House Tuesday.
The House of Representatives voted 149-0 after more than six hours of questioning that began at 3 p.m., after many had a chance to read the mammoth 97-section, 185-page package delivered to them late Monday night.
A Republican amendment to study ways to help high-performing school districts cut red tape was voted down along party lines. Much earlier, the state Senate voted to approve the package on a 28-7 vote after a couple of hours of bleary-eyed debate at 3:45 a.m. Tuesday.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who made education reform the centerpiece of his second year in office said he was tremendously proud of the work legislators have done over the last few months to fix what's broken in the public schools.
"We all know that we can't keep doing what we've done for more than 20 years when it comes to public education. Our kids can't afford it, and quite frankly, neither can our state," he said.
The reform bill went through several rewrites over the past three months and set the Democratic governor at odds with teachers across the state because of its efforts to reform teacher tenure.
In the end, however, teachers say they got a lot of what they want in the compromise package and Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor said he got a reform package that will improve education for children and strengthen the state's bid to win a federal waiver of the No Child Left Behind law.
"It will enable us to provide responses to questions in a way we believe will strengthen our position," Pryor said.
A waiver would mean that the state would no longer use annual testing to brand schools as failures.
Pryor said students would benefit because the state will spend nearly $100 million more on education, much of it directed to urban areas.
The education package will fund 1,000 new preschool slots, 20 new school-based health clinics and 10 more family resource centers. It will give the state a say in how to improve the 25 worst performing school districts, but also would allow local teachers and parents to weigh in on the reform efforts.
Dropped from the bill was a measure that would have required that districts like Bridgeport fund at least 20 percent of the local school budget by 2012-13 and 30 percent by 2016.
The reforms also allow for more scrutiny over how well teachers are performing in the classroom.
Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said the package is significantly better than the one proposed by Malloy in February. Levine said the process to determine if teachers are effective in the classroom will be fair, transparent and include teacher input.
Teachers will also have a say in efforts to turn around the state's lowest performing schools. Instead of giving the commissioner the power to select a turnaround model, a committee of teachers, administrators, parents and the commissioner would pick a model. Under the bill, a handful of the turnaround schools could be managed by nonprofit entities such as charter schools. Schools would have to negotiate with teachers over contracts.
It remained unclear on Tuesday whether the Bridgeport school system would get extra money to help it close a $3.5 million deficit in its 2011-12 operating budget. The state reportedly pledged to give the cash-strapped district extra funding if the city chipped in more, and it has, according to city and school officials.
State budget chief Ben Barnes said Tuesday he believed that issue would be addressed in a separate bill that has yet to be debated.
Bridgeport is also poised to be part of the teacher evaluation pilot process. The legislation calls for the first group to include rural, suburban and urban school districts with varying levels of student academic performance.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a ranking member of the education committee who voted in favor of the bill earlier Tuesday, called the legislation the true art of compromise.
"There is much in this bill to like and dislike," she said.
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said she was voting for the bill because she wants to see all students in the state succeed.
"They are all our children," she said.