With the education bill on its way to his desk, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy can claim victory on the biggest points in contention.
His education commissioner is authorized to take over as many as 25 failing local schools, creating the "commissioner's network." While the commissioner won't be allowed to abrogate teacher union contracts in these schools, his proposals to change contracts will go to an arbiter who "shall give the highest priority to the educational interests of the state ... as such interests relate to the children."
That is, for once the public interest will be superior to the union interest.
The standard for dismissing teachers will be eased, reduced from utter incompetence to mere ineffectiveness. Annual rather than just occasional evaluations of teachers and principals will be required. Student performance will be a factor in teacher tenure decisions.
Altogether this has been a brave attempt by the governor to accomplish public administration, heroic for his taking personal responsibility for failing schools. To transform those schools, the state Education Department will experiment with models and practices that have had success with the most disadvantaged students and neighborhoods. Not everything may work, but the extra attention alone will help. So will the thousand new state-funded pre-kindergarten seats provided by the bill for disadvantaged children throughout the state and the requirement for schools to report on reading proficiency in the earliest grades, a key predictor of trouble.
But the legislation has been marred by the haste of the compromise that put it together and the clumsiness of its presentation.
Announcing his agreement with the legislative leaders Monday night and apparently excited to have achieved as much as he did in negotiations, the governor remarked that the bill about to be sent to the General Assembly might contain some mistakes but he had been assured by the Senate president and House speaker that the legislature could be recalled to fix them in accordance with their understanding. An hour later the Senate approved the bill and sent it to the House without even having read it through. Some conscientious senators voted against it for that reason alone. This was embarrassing, at least outside the Capitol.
Details here and there will call the legislation into question as well. For example, only $7.5 million is appropriated for the "commissioner's network," and dividing that amount equally over 25 schools would allot only $300,000 per school. Of course Connecticut should have learned years ago that, in general, school spending has little correlation with learning. But transforming the worst schools will require more staff attention for students and more time for them in school, and that means money. The governor expects additional appropriations so that a million dollars might be spent to transform each school in the "commissioner's network," but state government's worsening budget deficit puts this in doubt.
Indeed, the legislation is appalling for its sheer bulk, caused by its hundreds of details. The bill is 185 pages; even its summary is 45. Most of this bulk describes current and future constraints on the public administration the bill is meant to advance. When teachers recently complained that a fair evaluation system is impossible because school administrators are and will always be evil-intentioned idiots, they inadvertently made the case for vouchers. The bill's mind-numbing length does the same.
The need of so many students for remediation must be addressed, and this legislation is a start. But the shame of state government's approach to education, as to so much else, is that it is all just remediation, not an attack on the cause of the problem. Resentful of implications that they are responsible for the poor performance of disadvantaged students, teachers lately have noted that the cause of failing schools is failing parents - that is, the great unmentionable, childbearing outside marriage underwritten by the welfare system. Until that is addressed, remediation will never catch up.