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How To Break The School-Reform Standoff

Back Off On Tenure, Step Up On 'Commissioner's Network'

By Rick Green

March 30, 2012

The ironic thing about this whole fight over education reform is that everybody the unions, Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, state legislators, the school reformers could still walk off as heroes.

Instead, everyone has retreated to a neutral corner and turned up the rhetoric. Including me.

Maybe it's time to find a solution that's fairer to all sides.

What's needed is for the governor to back off, and give a little on teacher tenure. The unions must respond and do the same with Malloy's plan for a "commissioner's network" of schools and acknowledge that a governor who cares about fixing instead of tolerating failing schools isn't the enemy.

Because nobody's apparently stepping forward we could use somebody such as the national American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (who helped New Haven forge a contract deal) or former Education Commissioner Ted Sergi to step in and bring these folks together right now here are a few suggestions.

Stan Simpson Show: Education Commission Stefan Pryor talks about Connecticut's reform plans (www.ctnow.com/stan)

Arguing for tenure reform, at least right now, is a losing rant. Tenure is "like doing employee evaluations and throwing them in the trash can," the Norwich Bulletin reported Malloy's inartfully saying the other day. And writing legislators who oppose him to say that "you're wrong" might not send the most useful message at this moment. Malloy is savvy enough to realize that pushing unions and their supporters into a corner won't end well. Like it or not, that's a political reality here. Move on, because everything doesn't hang on this.

The Connecticut Education Association, meanwhile, behaves, inexplicably and destructively, as if beating Malloy would actually help its cause, apparently unaware of what life under Gov. Tom Foley might be like for its members. It wouldn't hurt to remind teachers that Malloy's reform isn't about using standardized tests, in part, to evaluate learning. That was decided long ago. Sadly, the union has rejected overtures from the rival American Federation of Teachers to try to broker a compromise.

Some state legislators have done little to instill confidence in the process, starting at the top with Senate President Don Williams and House Speaker Chris Donovan. Closed-door meetings with teacher union lobbyists and legislative leaders certainly didn't help. Williams and Donovan (who has his eyes glued on the 5th District Congressional seat) owe us more than delivering a deal for a key constituent.

Meanwhile, a few bloggers and tweeters argue that there's a secret school privatization agenda behind Malloy's support for the charter school movement. Charter schools, for the record, are public schools by law. There are 17 of them in the entire state. Some are even unionized. Are wealthy investors supporting the charter movement? Yes, and I'm glad. I remember not so long ago when the 1 percent ignored the inequality in Connecticut's public schools.

What folks do agree on is an important beginning: more money for preschool, linking teacher evaluations to student performance, and even a little more fairness in funding for charter schools. Charters, in particular, ought to be glad that funding will grow to $11,000 per student annually, a substantial increase.

Changing the long-held teacher contract provision known as tenure isn't going to happen overnight. Here's where Malloy might breathe deep and tell the state's teachers, "I'm listening to you." If he can get all parties to agree to truly study the volatile question of linking teacher evaluations to terminating ineffective teachers, that's some progress.

We should also agree that the problem in Connecticut doesn't lie in the majority of school districts that are performing pretty well. Teachers in many suburban districts where the problems of poverty don't overwhelm are doing an admirable job. The focus must be on the lowest-performing schools.

The concentration of low achievement in the state's cities is astounding, and the governor and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor's plan to create a "Commissioner's Network" of turnaround schools is sound policy. Years of low performance merit a radical plan to try to create new models of success in Hartford, New Haven, New Britain, Bridgeport and other struggling districts.

Certainly the unions could compromise and agree to allowing Malloy and Pryor a dozen or 18 schools where the state could take dramatic action longer days, year-round school, more social services, better pay for sought-after science and math teachers without the constraints of restrictive labor contracts. We're talking about maybe 3 percent or 4 percent of the school population in the state here. Set deadlines, even have the unions run a few schools, and then replicate what works.

With this, Malloy, who deserves much credit for pushing a school reform agenda and who is no enemy of public education, might begin to attract new financial support for Connecticut school reform from the federal government, nonprofits and the private sector. The unions could also claim victory for protecting teachers and preserving what are, in many districts, successful public schools.

What's clear is that the standoff, and growing enmity, that we have now doesn't begin to tackle the fact that third-graders aren't learning to read and urban teenagers aren't finishing high school. States that are divided like this don't solve the achievement gap.

The governor, legislators and unions owe the rest of the state a real compromise in which all sides can declare victory.

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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