Budget crisis can create opportunity, too

(Steve Mandel is vice-chair of the Teach for America Connecticut advisory board.)

Gov. Dannel Malloy has a very difficult job on his hands. He is new to his position, needs to build a top-flight management team to help him run the state, and must close a $3.5 billion budget deficit, one of the largest in the nation in percentage terms. Tough stuff.

The governor has taken a pragmatic approach to the budget problem, asking for sacrifices from both taxpayers and public employees. And he has adopted a different leadership style, being less confrontational than governors in many other states in dealing with these sensitive political issues.

Not being one to “waste a good crisis,” though, Gov. Malloy also has called on the state legislature to reform both teacher tenure rules and the school finance system. These are bold initiatives. Connecticut has many problems, but the embarrassing disparity in learning outcomes between our students from wealthier families and our students from less affluent backgrounds is near the head of the list. In fact, we rank dead last among all 50 states in this “achievement gap.” Our children deserve better. And our state needs to do better if we want to remain a place where families and businesses want to locate.

So what is the answer and where does Gov. Malloy fit into the puzzle? Research tells us that the most important ingredient for student success is great teaching. This is where Gov. Malloy’s leadership comes in. His call to the state legislature was a good start, but much more is needed, and needed fast. Getting more great teachers into the classroom will mean:

  1. Appointing a dynamic, reform-minded education commissioner who will do whatever it takes to make sure Connecticut’s best and brightest are attracted to the teaching profession.
  2. Providing relief from “last-in, first-out” provisions in current teacher contracts, which can result in less experienced but very talented teachers being fired while more senior, less effective teachers retain their jobs. This will be especially damaging given district budget cuts across the state this year; teacher layoffs could be in the thousands.
  3. Endorsing teacher evaluation based on student outcomes, and tying those evaluations to staffing decisions.
  4. Supporting alternative routes to teacher certification to allow a greater number of talented people to become teachers.
  5. Advocating for a student-based school finance system and eliminating the current funding inequities disadvantaging successful public charter schools and other schools of choice.

Importantly, none of these reforms would require a dime of incremental tax money. In fact, they would save the state money over the long term by providing more students with the kind of education that prepares them to be productive citizens. Rather than dropping out of high school, they will maximize their academic achievement and earning potential to the benefit of the state and society. And critically, each of these reforms puts kids first, which must be the golden rule of education policy.

Gov. Malloy has already demonstrated leadership in tackling our budget crisis. To become the “education governor,” however, will require even stronger leadership and a fair amount of political courage as well. Connecticut’s kids deserve nothing less.

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