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Missteps On Both Sides Imperil School Reforms

By Rick Green

March 22, 2012

A behind-closed-doors standoff threatens to leave Gov. Dannel P. Malloy without the education reform he sought to make the centerpiece of this legislative session.

The reform plans are now bogged down as state legislators, union leaders and Malloy aides search for agreement on what has become a disappointing debate about union contract rules instead of new attention toward the thousands of urban students who are failing in Connecticut's public schools.

Just this week we saw yet another reminder of Connecticut's struggle to educate poor children. A national study revealed that during the past decade high school graduation rates in Connecticut have declined to about 75 percent, even as the national figure has increased and a dozen other states have made substantial progress.

"There are a number of things that frustrate me,'' Malloy said Thursday after a meeting on his reform plan with African-American clergy at the Capitol. "We have to get a robust reform package passed in this legislative session. If [we] don't, we will be back doing it again."

In recent weeks, Malloy has met a buzz saw of union-fueled opposition at his education town hall meetings around the state as many questioned his plan to evaluate teachers, based in part on test scores. Under the governor's proposal, chronically ineffective teachers would face termination and all teachers would face a review every five years.

This comes as a Quinnipiac Poll released this week showed that a majority of union households with children under 18 support Malloy's plan to limit the job protection known as teacher tenure. At the same time, the poll revealed strong support for public school teachers, despite critics who said Malloy had successfully "demonized" them.

While the smaller American Federation of Teachers has sought to forge a compromise similar to the nationally-acclaimed contract in New Haven that changes how schools operate and how teachers are evaluated, the much larger Connecticut Education Association has dug in. The association has encouraged its tens of thousands of members to oppose the reform bill.

"The AFT has been saying for a long time we just can't say no. The status quo is not working,'' Eric Excell-Bailey, communications director for AFT Connecticut, told me. "We have to be part of the solution."

Infuriating legislators and Malloy aides, the CEA this week bought television ads suggesting there isn't much at all to like about the governor's reform plan even as all sides were holding private face-to-face meetings to try to reach an agreement. This won't do much to forge any kind of compromise that rank-and-file teachers will have to accept.

"Malloy's plan doesn't get it right,'' the CEA ad ominously intones, warning that the governor seeks to remove local control of schools, allow principals to take a teacher's certification away and siphon tax dollars from local schools.

Like many political ads, some of the claims are accurate and much is a stretch. Malloy's plan would remove local control from just two dozen chronically low-performing schools. A teacher with a bad evaluation could have as long as three years to improve, with additional help. The new plan calls for numerous measures of a teacher's ability, including using an outside, independent party to assess the evaluation. The reform plan would require districts to provide money for charter schools, which are public schools. This hardly represents taking money away from local schools.

Malloy has himself to blame for some of the heat his plan is taking. The clumsy attempt to make former Hartford Superintendent Stephen Adamowski eligible for a retirement pension certainly hasn't helped the reform cause. Neither has his initial description of the job protection provision known as tenure. When he announced his legislation in February, he said all a teacher had to do was "show up" to earn tenure.

The Adamowski deal will go nowhere, I'm told. Look for Malloy to compromise on some details of his plan, such as on how low-performing teachers are evaluated, assisted and terminated. Charter schools won't get as much new funding as the $1,000 per pupil in new funding that Malloy sought. Legislators also agree that the Malloy bill doesn't talk enough about how school principals and other administrators should be held accountable.

The irony buried within all this acrimony is that both Malloy and the teacher unions are right. Malloy is correct to push for changes that could begin to improve the chances of the tens of thousands of children who don't learn to properly read or who drop out of high school. But the teachers are right when they say there are profound problems created by poverty that can't be solved by a tidy new plan for evaluation and a state takeover of the worst schools.

It's time for both sides to give a little here and move on. The real work has yet to begin.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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