Well, It's A Start — An Ugly, Bloody, Unsavory Start
Debate Over Education Reform Focused On Adults, Not Kids, And That's Too Bad
By Rick Green
May 07, 2012
An admirable – if tentative – education-reform compromise emerging from the General Assembly leaves the governor and the state's largest teachers union bloody and wounded.
Yes, the changes the legislature may yet still approve will gently begin a years-long reform process that is heavy on pilot programs that may one day prove promising. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gets a win and so does the Connecticut Education Association, which out-muscled the first-term governor with an impressive show of force.
But it is sadly revealing that so much of the "reform" debate over the past few months about improving schools that serve our poorest students revolved around how well-compensated adults would be affected. Third-graders who can't read have always been too easy for Connecticut to ignore. This year was no different.
The damage done to both Malloy and his new-found nemesis, the CEA, may take years to repair. For a Democratic governor who won by a whisker in 2010 and who needs all the votes he can find, teachers included, this falling out had better not be fatal.
Malloy staked the success of this legislative session on education reform but made the mistake of taking on all of public education in Connecticut, when it's really a minority of failing urban schools needing urgent attention. He ran into the powerful ground game of the suburban teacher-dominated CEA, which brought out the emails, the phone calls and the feet-on-the-ground at the Capitol – effectively demonizing the governor and his plans to change teacher tenure, embrace charter schools, and challenge collective bargaining rules.
It is bad news indeed when a governor who won by just 7,000 or so votes turns a 43,000-member union into an angry hornet's nest. If every teacher who showed up at two Capitol rallies sponsored by the CEA last month votes against Malloy in 2014, the governor is certainly doomed.
"What's driven this is the CEA," said House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero, whose party was more supportive of much of Malloy's education plans than many Democrats. "When you piss teachers off, legislators are of course going to be sympathetic."
Then there's the CEA itself, whose leaders made a parody of their commitment to change by opposing even the most exploratory reform efforts and suggesting this was all part of some super-secret plan by a liberal Democratic governor to privatize the public schools. It was ludicrous – and false.
CEA leaders, by turning the debate into a referendum on Malloy's leadership, left observers wondering whether the state's largest teacher's union stands for much more than preserving an education system that is failing to address the needs of the state's poorest children.
The CEA strategy – effective in the short run for union leadership – could end up one of the most short-sighted political moves in recent memory if its virulent opposition to Malloy hands the governor's office back to a Republican in 2014.
In the end, Malloy, legislators supporting the governor, and others who backed the teacher unions found middle ground that could have been reached months ago: controversial ideas such as tying teacher evaluation to student performance would begin on a trial basis. Not surprisingly, the compromise was still running into opposition at the Capitol as the evening wore on Monday.
"All along I felt there was a vast middle,'' Sen. Beth Bye told me during a break Monday evening when the Senate was still planning to take up the reform package. "Both sides got dug in."
"The teachers I talk to are very angry. The longer this went on, the worse it got,'' said Bye, who told me that CEA communications to members sometimes "misrepresented" the governor. No kidding.
Malloy, meanwhile, struggled all winter and spring to recover from the damage inflicted by his remarks in his opening State of the State speech, when he declared that teachers who merely "show up" earn lifetime job security. Those are words the governor, by May, certainly wishes he had never uttered.
"It was not a good start,'' said Sharon Palmer, president of AFT Connecticut, which represents about 12,000 teachers and whose smaller and more reform-oriented union sought a compromise while the CEA was busing in thousands of teachers for anti-Malloy rallies outside the Capitol.
"We wanted reform as much as anyone else."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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