June 26, 2017

Businesses seek bigger say in education reform

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Jeffrey Villar and Andrea Comer are leading the Connecticut Business and Industry Association's workforce preparedness and K-12 policy reforms.

Business Influence

The CT Council for Education Reform helped influence passage of two education bills in 2017.

House Bill 7205: Early literacy support for grades K-3; requires results of annual reading surveys provided to teachers to be shared with supervisors and used to help develop professional development.

House Bill 7251: Establishes a reform district turnaround plan, enhancing training for boards of education for underperforming school districts.

About a month before Connecticut careened into an extended legislative session to address its fiscal crisis, two industry-backed nonprofits joined forces with the hopes of giving businesses a bigger say in education reform.

The Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER) and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) affiliated in mid-May, hoping to align their areas of expertise so that businesses can assist educators in improving literacy, fostering professional development and establishing other policies that help strengthen the state's workforce and close the so-called "achievement gap," which is the difference in educational performance between Connecticut's low-income and non-low-income students.

Among their goals is to redefine what it means for students to be college- and career-ready, improve test scores and graduation rates, and ensure preschool slots are available to children across the state, says Jeffrey Villar, CCER's former executive director.

Villar is now vice president of education policy for CBIA's Education and Workforce Partnership.

"Fiscal issues aside, it really is your workforce that differentiates [one] state's economy from another, so it's incumbent on CBIA to be more vocal, active and successful in preparing a workforce for our member companies," says CBIA CEO and President Joe Brennan.

The affiliation pairs Villar and Andrea Comer, formerly CBIA's Education and Workforce Partnership executive director and now vice president of workforce strategies. Together, Villar said, the newly formed group is crafting a 2018 policy agenda that can be pursued not only at the local level but statewide.

Specifically, they are targeting reforms in K-12 education.

Since the CBIA already had a longstanding relationship with CCER and a seat on its board of directors, coming together was "a natural fit," said Steven J. Simmons, CCER's board chairman. As part of the merger, CBIA and CCER will retain their respective boards. CCER's board includes heavy-hitting, corporate executives like Travelers Cos. CEO Alan Schnitzer and Ramani Ayer, retired CEO of The Hartford. Simmons is also chairman of Greenwich-based Simmons/Patriot Media & Communications.

"CCER grew out of Steve Simmons' efforts to keep a governor's commission on closing the education gap going," said state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, a West Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the legislature's Education Committee and is also CEO of the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters. "I'm hoping Jeff and the team from the council continue to have strong roles after this merger."

While business input is plentiful for the state's technical high schools, which help lead students to careers in manufacturing, information technology and health services, among many others, there are tech programs within Connecticut public high schools that don't have those same business connections, said Fleischmann. He said he sees the new partnership as a group with the potential to change that, as well as strengthen internships and apprenticeships for economically disadvantaged students.

In 2016, CCER, which has moved into CBIA's downtown Hartford offices, had an operating budget of $1.2 million. Its key corporate supporters include Stanley Black & Decker, Travelers, the Grossman Family Foundation and People's United Bank.

"We had more than enough money in the bank to operate without raising another penny in the foreseeable future," said Simmons, "but by combining with the CBIA we will operate more efficiently. The primary reason for doing this was, we felt we would be a much stronger voice in improving education."

In its affiliation with CBIA, CCER eliminated its finance director and an office manager and data analyst — services already staffed at CBIA, Villar said.

Comer points out that better outcomes are attainable by focusing on rigorous student curriculums, high expectations for teachers and empowered leaders and equitable resources. She warned that the continued exodus out of the state of capable Connecticut youth and workers is the penalty Connecticut will pay if it doesn't pursue these goals.

"You've seen it play out with GE and Aetna," she noted. "They're not saying, 'We're leaving for tax reasons;' they're leaving primarily for talent reasons. Academia is saying, 'We need to listen to business and meet their workforce needs.' "

However, in many ways, businesses are already engaged, Comer said. CBIA's Education and Workforce Partnership website promotes continued implementation of education reforms that use metrics to measure outcomes and programming that addresses the skills gap and aligns with the needs of Connecticut's leading and emerging industries.

She cited the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology in Hartford as a good model. It has an active industry-led advisory board, engages students in project-based learning opportunities, and connects pupils with internships and mentoring. United Technologies and Pratt & Whitney fund the effort, she said.

CCER's most influential work traces back to 2012 when it advocated for many of the proposals adopted in a large education-reform package, including creation of the Office of Early Childhood, which brought under one agency and expanded preschool resources, and the Alliance District Program, which allows for state intervention in the lowest-performing school districts.

The law also more closely linked teacher tenure to performance, Villar said.

Building coalitions

As the newly formed group begins to craft its next policy agenda and initiatives, other organizations including Achieve Hartford, a business-backed education reform group, and the teacher's labor union, AFT Connecticut, are eager to hear their ideas or collaborate.

"I don't think it's a secret we've fought over policy with both CBIA and CCER," said Jan Hochadel, the labor union president, citing charter school funding as an example. Nonetheless, she said she's eager to have conversations with the new group regarding issues like STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and manufacturing jobs.

"There's enough areas where we do have some common ground, that I think we can find areas we can work on together for common good for the students and families in Connecticut," Hochadel said.

Paul Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford, agrees, saying he's hoping to see results that will lead broadly to a stronger Connecticut workforce and economy.

CBIA sits on the steering committee for Achieve Hartford's ALL IN! Coalition, which seeks to help Hartford youth complete public high school as they make their way toward college or the workforce. One action team's goal is to decrease by 10 percent "summer melt," which is the failure of graduates accepted to college in the spring to show up in the fall.

"What we're doing at the city level, I want CBIA and CCER to do at the state level," Holzer said. "I look forward to exploring how we'll work with [them]."

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