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Public Opposition Kills Reform Plan in Conn. Legislature

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Opposition from parent groups and teachers' unions in Connecticut has killed a reform panel's proposal for moving the state to a performance-based education system.

The legislature last week adjourned for the year without having approved the plan, which was drafted by the Commission on Educational Excellence in Connecticut.

Instead of considering the reform plan, lawmakers voted on a school-choice measure sponsored by Rep. Thomas S. Luby, the leader of the Democratic majority in the House.

That bill, which failed after a split vote in the House, would have provided tuition vouchers for poor children to attend either public or private schools. It also would have authorized private firms, as well as groups of parents and teachers, to create charter schools.

Observers said the last-minute push for vouchers and public criticism of parts of the commission's proposal weakened the legislature's resolve to support broad changes in the schools.

In addition, one of the reform plan's major supporters, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., has announced that he will not seek re-election.

The 43-member commission, established by the legislature in 1992, recommended setting standards for all K-12 students and requiring every school to form a site-based council to oversee budget, curriculum, and staffing decisions.

The recommendations were supported by many state officials and by the business community in general. But the two statewide teachers' unions criticized the proposed changes in teacher tenure, professional development, and certification. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994.)

In hearings and other public forums around the state, moreover, critics said the reforms were too vague, or doubted the state's ability to pay for the changes.

Some of the opposition was led by conservative groups, which voiced arguments similar to those mounted against outcomes-based education in other states. In addition, the reform proposal received a skeptical reaction from many parents in affluent suburban communities, who questioned the need for major changes in schools they perceived as working well.

No 'Compelling Reason'

Other critics said the performance-based system--which would cost the state an estimated $125 million--did not appear to be part of a cohesive, long-term strategy to improve public education.

"The legislature and the commission did not present a compelling reason for the changes,'' said Robert F. Eagan, the president of the Connecticut Education Association and one of two teachers who served on the panel.

"We need to create legislation that can help us build on what we have now,'' Mr. Eagan added, pointing to the state's eight-year-old reforms setting standards for teachers.

The C.E.A. and the Connecticut State Federation of Teachers also argued that most of the burden for successfully implementing the changes would have fallen on teachers.

Sen. Kevin B. Sullivan, the co-chairman of the legislature's joint education committee and a leading backer of the bill, said lawmakers probably did not give the public "a clear message of what we were trying to do.''

But he and other state officials suggested that the commission's plans could be resurrected next year.

"None of these issues is going to go away,'' Mr. Sullivan said. "But I think we will come at reform in a different way next time.''

Proponents of the school-choice measure said that bill could be proposed again next year as well, although Mr. Luby, its chief sponsor, is set to run for the U.S. House.

Some Republicans in the legislature who also were strong supporters of the bill could continue to press the choice issue, legislative aides said last week.

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