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May 3, 2024

CT bills on teacher certification, mandated reporting pass House

YEHYUN KIM / CT MIRROR State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, left, discusses with Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, in the house chamber on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

State representatives on Thursday passed a pair of sweeping bills that would aim to make it easier to become a teacher, examine the effects of unfunded education mandates on towns and shift mandated reporter requirements in the state’s child welfare system.

The measures — House bills 5436 and 5437 — would require the state to compile regular reports on “disconnected youth” and notably change the state Board of Education’s duties by adding another semi-autonomous committee that would be charged with handling education certifications. The new body would work hand-in-hand with the Board of Education, said Education Committee co-chair Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford.

The bills combine ideas from several bills the Education Committee discussed this session, Currey said.

The move is part of a plan to have the state Board of Education serve as more of an advisory council than a governing body, Currey said.

“The reason being partly … that we’re doing this certification with the semi-autonomous group is that this is made up of subject matter experts, which the state Board of Education is not,” Currey said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said at the start of the day that he didn’t anticipate much pushback on the measures, which proved to be true. He also said he was glad to see the start of a shift for the state Board of Education because of the body’s actions related to the Killingly School District last year, when the state held a series of hearings regarding an alleged lack of mental health care in the district. He called the state’s action an overreach.

Connecticut law allows the state Board of Education to intervene in cases in which local districts aren’t following the educational interests of the state.

“While Killingly certainly has had their issues, it’s not the role of the Board of Ed to sort of set policies and I worry — even now with that decision — what does it do for districts that don’t have school-based health centers?,” Candelora said, referring to the school-based mental health services central to the Killingly complaint. “And are they on their own going to say ‘Every district needs to have one?’”

Lawmakers are also looking to make it easier for teachers to get certified this session as local districts face workforce shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic.

H.B. 5436 would streamline the state’s three-tiered system of teacher certification by eliminating one of the tiers. It would also make it easier for professionals with at least five years of experience to teach certain courses and allow elementary school officials more flexibility on which grades educators teach in.

“We have many barriers that have been put in front of teacher certification,” said Education ranking member Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford.

The bill would also change mandated reporting requirements for teachers. Lawmakers said many teachers are calling the state’s Department of Children and Families to make reports out of fear of losing their jobs even if they are unsure rather than because they believe kids are being abused or neglected.

Educators place about 40% of calls to DCF’s Careline, and only a small percentage of those are substantiated reports, Currey said. The bill would add in “good faith,” language to mandated reporter requirements meaning that teachers will only have to call DCF if they believe there is abuse or neglect.

It also allows them to ask questions before calling DCF — for example, if a child comes to school with a bruised knee, the teacher can ask what happened. If the child says they fell off their bike, and the teacher believes them, they don’t have to report the incident.

“They’re making calls for many unnecessary reasons, simply because they’re so terrified about losing their jobs,” Currey said Thursday.

It’s typical across many states for most child welfare reports to come from schools, in part because educators spend many hours interacting with children regularly and have the opportunity to notice changes in behavior, injuries or unmet needs. The majority of calls to child welfare hotlines are about neglect.

Currey said lawmakers worked with DCF and the Office of the Child Advocate on the change. He said it will relieve pressure on both educators and families.

H.B. 5436 passed unanimously.

Lawmakers passed another education bill — H.B. 5437 — with 129 in favor, 20 against and two not voting. That bill focuses largely on disconnected youth and reducing unfunded mandates on school districts.

It establishes the Education Mandate Review Advisory Council. The group will report annually to the Education Committee about the cost and implementation of education mandates on school districts. Over the last year a working group has reviewed the existing unfunded mandates, he added.

The bill will offer more professional development flexibility so that educators can get training that’s the most useful to them, he said.

Currey said the goal is to help the legislature become more aware of any unfunded mandates and inform future legislation.

Candelora said his biggest concern with the legislation is that it doesn’t address a state mandate that schools shift to a new way of teaching children to read called the Right to Read program.

During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers passed the Right to Read bill, which will require that all Connecticut school districts shift to a reading program aligned with the Science of Reading — a body of research that shows the best way to teach reading is through five pillars of skill development: phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

More than 80 school districts applied for waivers on the program.

The bill also requires more reporting on data regarding “disconnected youth,” meaning high school graduates who are neither employed nor enrolled in higher education, high school non-graduates who are employed, young adults who have neither a high school diploma nor employment, and incarcerated individuals from 14 to 26 years old.

The requirement follows a report from grant foundation Dalio Education. The report found that more than 119,000, or about 19%, of young people in Connecticut between the ages of 14 and 26 were “at risk” or “disconnected” in 2021-22.

Republicans argued that requiring more reporting in a bill that purports to reduce mandates was counterintuitive.

The bill would also change regulations around suspensions for some of the state’s youngest students — pre-kindergarten to second graders. Kids of that age could only be suspended if they cause physical harm and their out-of-school suspensions can’t exceed five days.

Current law allows up to 10 days of suspension.

If passed, the bill would also change certain graduation requirements. High schoolers would be allowed to volunteer with partisan political groups to fulfill the requirement.

Currey said it would “open up ways for our students to be the most civically engaged,” that they can be.

Both bills are next set to head to the Senate.

Jessika Harkay contributed reporting.

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