Education Reform in Connecticut

As regular readers know, I am up here in Connecticut this week and yesterday’s news and this morning’s papers were dominated by coverage of Governor Dannel Malloy’s State of the State address. Having not been paying close attention to state politics, I thought this would be a yawn for me but Gov. Malloy did not just set out the fiscal challenges facing the state. He called for wholesale reform of public schools including changing the tenure system for teachers.

Calls for changing tenure are not new, but coming from a Democratic governor in an very blue state, and at a time when public employee unions are understandably sensitive after a series of attacks on their most basic rights in Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, and elsewhere, I was surprised. Why would a Democratic governor tangle with his base so soon after coming off a big fight last year with public employee unions about give-backs to balance the budget?

It became obvious, however, that the governor did not just launch his ideas out of the blue. He had reached out to the heads of the teachers’ unions first so, while they objected to Malloy’s characterization of the method of getting tenure currently – “the only thing you have to do is show up for four years” – they were generally supportive, or at least not dismissive, of Malloy’s efforts. “We need to see what he’s talking about,” the head of the Connecticut Federation of Teachers, Sharon Palmer, told the Hartford Courant. “We may not be that far apart.” (Full disclosure: In 2004, while working on a congressional campaign here in Connecticut I got to know Ms. Palmer and think the world of her, but I did not contact her about this article.) The head of the Connecticut Education Association voiced a similar sensibility of cautious optimism: “I think we have a lot in common,” said Mary Loftus Levine, “but the devil is in the details.”

Actually, when it comes to the public schools, the devil is not in the details. The devil has been let loose for so long and with so little effort to beat him back, that many of Connecticut’s schools are failing and failing badly, and they have been for some time. This has the consequence of consigning an entire generation of young adults to a lack of upward mobility, a string of low-paying jobs, and a host of socio-economic difficulties that, taken together, amount to a case of national criminal neglect.

I have no complaint personally about the public schools in the great state of Connecticut. I attended them through high school, although my experience was hardly typical insofar as in my little town, our regional high school covered three towns and only mustered a graduating senior class of 49. My mother was a lifelong member of the Connecticut Education Association and taught in the public schools for thirty years. My Dad was a principal in a public school. I am acutely aware of the pressures that seemed to increase on public school teachers each year – the increasing rates of poor students (one year, I recall, all but two of my mother’s fourth graders were on free lunch), parents who declined to be involved in their children’s education, outdated school buildings, in rundown neighborhoods, etc. Certainly, the failure of our public schools cannot be blamed solely or even largely on the quality of teachers.

In Connecticut, though, we also have one of the highest profile education reform advocates in the country in the person of Steve Perry, principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, a school in inner-city Hartford that routinely sends all of its graduates to college. You may have seen Perry on CNN where he serves as an education analyst. He was featured in a recent Fareed Zakaria special on the subject of education reform. There is nothing like success under difficult circumstances to point out that failure need not be the default option.

Perry and others have effectively made the case that we should be hitting on all cylinders when it comes to education reform. Perry, IU should note, also supports government assistance through tuition vouchers for private and parochial schools: While we need to work for change in the long-run, we also have a moral obligation to save as many kids from failing schools today as we possibly can. And, when the teachers’ unions themselves recognize that change must be embraced not fought, perhaps Gov. Mallow will get some wind in his sails. Certainly, it helps that, as a Democrat, Malloy’s attempts to reform tenure are a little like Nixon going to China: Only someone who has not demonstrated long-term animus to unions can actually get unions to change, just as only a hawk like Nixon could pull off opening negotiations with Communist China in the 1970s.

Thirty-one states have reformed the tenure system since 2009. Some states have abolished it entirely. But, instead of falling in to the tired old debates about teachers’ rights or opposition to vouchers or any other barricade to reform, we need to focus on the moral enormity of a society unable to educate its own young people and commit ourselves to trying to change that. If a given set of reforms don’t work, we should try others. We should keep trying until some reforms, or combination of reforms, begin to turn the situation around. This is a time for pragmatic, persistent efforts to improve our schools and, consequently, improve the life prospects of our children. If anything is precious in this life, our children our precious. Democrats and Republicans, public schools and parochial schools, governors and union leaders, community activists and parents, everyone needs to come together and work to better our schools. The future of the country demands no less.

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