Hartford - When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled the teacher tenure components of his public schools reform plan in his State of the State address earlier this month, initial reaction from state teachers' unions was mostly circumspect.
"I think we have a lot in common, but the devil is in the details," Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the 43,000-member Connecticut Education Association, said shortly after the Feb. 8 speech.
Most criticisms that day concerned the governor's broad-brush interpretation of current tenure requirements. "Basically, the only thing you have to do is show up for four years," he said.
But that was almost two weeks ago. Teachers and union leaders have since pored over the specifics of the legislation Malloy and Stefan Pryor, the new commissioner of education, are proposing for this year's short session of the General Assembly. And those details, in their eyes, are looking rather devilish.
In an interview, Levine said her members will be out "in full force" at public hearings this afternoon and Wednesday at the Capitol to oppose what they consider the bill's worst parts: the weakening of teacher tenure and linking salary guidelines to new certification requirements and an evaluation system.
Levine called those proposals misguided, overreaching and offensive, and said they would make it less desirable to be a teacher in Connecticut.
"People are outraged at these proposals," Levine said. "There is no research-based evidence to prove that these plans will do anything to improve student achievement."
The 28,000-member AFT Connecticut is also preparing for what could be a tumultuous two days of hearings before the Education Committee. "Our members are very upset and very angry," union spokesman Eric Bailey said.
State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, the education committee's co-chairman, said she is waiting until after the hearings to form an opinion on the tenure and certification proposals.
"We need that feedback from people in the education community as to what they envision any changes should be - if they want it," Stillman said.
'Too easy to get' tenure
The system of tenure for Connecticut public school teachers dates to the mid-20th century.
"It came about when teachers were fired for getting pregnant, for saying the wrong thing in classrooms, and so on," said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and a supporter of the governor's tenure plan. "Teachers were let go for reasons that are now protected by law."
Under current education law, teachers attain tenure after working four years in the same district. Tenured teachers then get their contracts automatically renewed every year and can be dismissed only for one of six reasons: "inefficiency or incompetence," layoffs, insubordination, moral misconduct, disability or another "due and sufficient cause."
A tenured teacher facing a layoff can bump a nontenured colleague from his or her job. And tenured teachers can appeal their firing through a process involving a three-person panel with testimony that can stretch over 75 days or more.
Critics contend that, in practice, it can take a year or more in some districts to dismiss a tenured teacher, even one who is truly bad. They also say there are too many dismal yet not quite egregious teachers who become frozen into their jobs.
"The bottom line?" Malloy said in his State of the State. "Today, tenure is too easy to get and too hard to take away."
The governor's proposal would make it harder for teachers to get and keep tenure, and easier for districts to fire them. The backbone of the plan is a new, four-level performance scale: "Exemplary," "Proficient," "Developing" and "Below Standard."
To attain tenure, a teacher would need to achieve two "exemplary" ratings in three years, or a combination of three "proficient" or "exemplary" ratings in five years.
A tenured teacher would have regular evaluations and could be dismissed for just once scoring "below standard" or for being rated as "developing" for two consecutive years.
The proposal also allows districts to sack new teachers at will for up to a year instead of the current 90-day period.
Levine said the proposed standards are unfair to teachers, as members of other licensed professions generally don't lose their jobs after one bad evaluation. "This is another example of teacher-bashing and putting the blame where it does not belong," she said.
To shorten the dismissal process, a tenured teacher would appeal to a single arbitrator chosen by the teacher and the district superintendent. The hearing would then be limited to 30 days and eight hours of testimony.
Bill going too far?
The CEA says it wants to revamp outdated parts of the tenure system by shortening the appeals process and reducing the number of arbitrators, as the governor proposed.
But the association and AFT Connecticut argue that Malloy's bill goes too far, and would dissolve protections against teachers' jobs being threatened for personal or political reasons.
Joel Farrior, president of the Montville Education Association, is concerned that the tenure proposal could encourage districts to cut costs by jettisoning their veteran teachers at the top of the salary scale and replacing them with recent college graduates.
"Once you have that due process or tenure, it shouldn't be up for renewal -you've proven your worth," said Farrior, a social studies teacher at Leonard J. Tyl Middle School. "You could be the best teacher in the classroom and you're still not guaranteed to keep your job."
Many private-sector workers in non-union workplaces live with constant uncertainty about their employment. But Farrior says that stripping away teachers' job security will hurt the profession and, in turn, the students.
"If this is the direction you want, you're going to find fewer people who want to teach," he said.
In a phone interview Friday, Pryor said the tenure changes are intended to raise standards in the teaching profession and ensure that tenure is meaningful.
"Teachers ought to be held up as the tremendously valuable members of society that they are," Pryor said. "The system that we're designing aims of ensuring that."
Three certificate steps
This month, the state Board of Education agreed on a framework for teacher evaluations that would be linked to the performance ratings. The guidelines were put together by a council of teachers, principals, school boards and others.
The evaluation elements are 45 percent tied to student "learning indicators," with one-half of that based on standardized tests; 40 percent on observations of teacher performance; 10 percent on peer or parent surveys; and 5 percent on student feedback or "whole-school" learning indicators.
The governor's proposal also would replace the existing teacher certification system with three new steps: Initial, Professional and Master. Movement between the certifications would largely be determined by performance on the new teacher evaluations.
By either mid-2014 or mid-2015, school districts would have to base their teacher salary scales on the new certifications - no longer on an educator's years of experience or number of advanced degrees.
Current teachers, regardless of their time in the district, would start at year one in pursuit of the new "Master" Certificate, which would require at least three "exemplary" performance ratings over five years.
"The new system evolves the former system to one that is more linked to performance," Pryor told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing.
The CEA is worried that the new certificate system would give boards of education an incentive to set lower salaries.
Pryor denied any aim to shrivel teachers' pay.
"It is the case that there is limited correlation between the holding of a master's degree and teacher effectiveness," Pryor said in an interview. "We do believe it's important that school districts be able to account for other factors that may be even better indicators of teacher effectiveness."
Leo Facchini, a science teacher at New London High School, feels the reform proposal is an attempt to scapegoat teachers for the state's nation-leading achievement gap between students from low-income homes and their more affluent peers. Teachers can only influence a student's development to a point, he said.
"I think a lot of this stuff is a knee-jerk reaction to the low test scores," Facchini said. "If our test scores don't go up, it's not because we're not working hard or because we're doing anything wrong."