Whether Gov. Dannel P. Malloy can rescue his education reform bill, which as modified by the legislature's Education Committee is a shell of his original bold proposal, will rest on his ability to find some common ground with the state's two powerful teacher unions on the contentious issue of tying performance evaluations to tenure and compensation.
Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr. and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan are not going to fight to restore the meat to the bones of Gov. Malloy's education plan without a wink and nod from the teacher unions. Speaker Donovan in particular, a staunch labor supporter now running for Congress in the Fifth District, has no motivation to hand Gov. Malloy a legislative victory by bucking the unions.
What the governor has on his side, however, is unprecedented backing for the broad concepts of his education reform plan. A coalition of six education and business groups, representing superintendents, boards of education, industry and educational advocacy groups have endorsed many of its specifics. With near unanimity, newspaper editorial writers across the state have criticized the Education Committee for gutting so much of the governor's enterprising plan.
Teachers, we suspect, would welcome an opening that would allow them to be players in the reform effort, rather than the obstructionists many in the public have come to view them as.
A major milestone was achieved when the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC), in a lead-up to the legislative session, agreed on a framework for teacher evaluations that included multiple measures of performance. Serving on the council were representatives from both teacher unions, who voted for the evaluation formula.
But it was Gov. Malloy's plan to connect those evaluations to decisions about professional development training, certification, advancement and tenure that generated teacher opposition. Because of that opposition, the Education Committee stripped the link between evaluations and tenure and compensation from the bill.
The governor's proposal is only logical. Evaluations are of little good if administrators cannot tie them to training and intervention initiatives for improving performance and, when that fails, to removing ineffective teachers.
Yet the teacher concerns are not without validity. They complain that administrators at many schools are not now conducting or utilizing evaluations. Though good on paper, the evaluation formula approved by PEAC is untested in Connecticut. Teachers are acting reasonably in wanting to see an evaluation system effectively implemented before tying it to their career security.
The common ground may be a phasing-in of the new evaluation process and its connection to tenure, training and compensation - perhaps a year to test the process, then use in some school systems the year after and full implementation to follow, with PEAC or some other group suggesting adjustments as necessary.
If the governor can get union buy-in on a gradual implementation of his evaluation/tenure proposals, restoring other parts of his reform plan could follow. These include: revive a proposal to use tuition reimbursements and other incentives to attract the top college graduates to teach in high-need schools; giving the education commissioner the tools he needs to aggressively reorganize struggling schools in which the state intervenes; and increasing the number of at-risk schools the state can target. This last step may be necessary to obtain a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements that otherwise will result in Connecticut losing federal aid.
In 15 months in office, Gov. Malloy has proved to be a leader who sets agendas and works to achieve them quickly. Talks with the teacher unions, however, may require the qualities of patience and flexibility. Having set this as the year to reform education, Gov. Malloy does not want to fall far short. Conversely, teachers don't want the blame for the governor's failure. Therein may lay the motivation to reach a compromise.