A new union leader assumes an influential role

To understand the power Mary Loftus Levine enjoys as the new leader of the state’s largest teachers union, one has to look no further than Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s remarks to a room full of school superintendents at their annual back-to-school pep talk.

On what is one of the top issues for many superintendents — granting them the ability to fire bad teachers in a timely fashion — Malloy told the room that Levine will be helping his administration create and launch teacher evaluations to get bad teachers out of the classroom more quickly.

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Mary Loftus Levine watches as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy talks to an early childhood committee, one of many committees she is a member of

“I want to work with the [Connecticut Education Association] to make sure that every teacher in every school in Connecticut can be proud of their colleague sitting next to them, or down the hallway,” Malloy said.

Education advocates and lawyers were hoping the teachers unions would have less a say in the process, but have grown used to the power Levine and her union possess.

“Her union is very, very powerful,” said Thomas B. Mooney, a top education lawyer in the state whose firm, Shipman and Goodwin, represents over 100 boards of education. “It’s inappropriate for unions to partner with management on this. It is their duty to defend teachers. They shouldn’t be able to control how a teacher is graded.”

Levine disagrees, and has made it a top priority to closely scrutinize and be closely involved in what new benchmarks teachers may soon be graded upon.

She also points out that school districts already have a process available that they could use to evaluate teachers, “they just aren’t being used. … We know what works, we just need to implement it.”

“Believe it or not, our teachers want to get evaluated. They want the feedback. They want to improve their profession,” she said.

But public testimony submitted by CEA earlier this year — before Levine held her current job but while she was the union’s policy director — shows it opposed a bill that would have set deadlines for evaluating and conducting dismissal proceedings for teachers. That bill also would have fast-forwarded the deadline the committee responsible for recommending evaluation guidelines for the legislature to consider by 2013 to next year.

Levine’s policy background will be useful in the role she assumed last month. As CEA’s executive director, she has a place on a number of key committees and panels, including Education Cost Sharing Task Force, which is responsible for forming recommendations in how school funding should be divvied up.

“It’s almost par for the course that you are part of every committee,” then-Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman told the superintendents while introducing Levine at the annual back-to-school meeting with superintendents.

Levine steps into the lead of the 41,000-teacher union at a pivotal time in education, as Malloy has promised to dedicate the upcoming year to reforming education. And she is starting off strong, already standing up against popular education initiatives, such as allowing charter schools to increase enrollment.

“I think we are doing just as good, if not better, with less resources than charters, and we take all children,” she said. “We don’t take our discipline problems and send them somewhere else when they aren’t behaving and we do not have the huge turnover they have in their staff.”

The antipathy toward charter schools puts her in stark contrast with the state’s new education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, who before being selected by Malloy last month was best known as the founder of the aclaimed Amistad Academy charter school in New Haven.

But those who have worked closely with her throughout the years said Levine is unlikely to back down.

“She is a tenacious advocate for teachers. She is tough,” said Mooney, who worked on the other side of the table for almost 15 years from Levine during teacher contract negotiations in Stamford.

Patrice McCarthy, head of the Connecticut Boards of Education, used the same word to describe her tactics.

“She is tenacious for her cause,” she said.

But has this tenacity left CEA with the reputation that it is unwilling to compromise or change?

Sharon Palmer, head of the Connecticut American Federation of Teachers, the other major teachers’ union in the state, said she often hears that her union is more likely to launch or support major reforms than the CEA.

“We are viewed as the more radical of the teachers’ unions. We are more likely to step out of the box for reform efforts,” she said.

Those in the education community point to AFT’s role in helping create the New Haven teachers contract, which provides for teacher evaluations that include student performance and for a mechanism to remove teachers who don’t measure up. Pryor has said he is looking to that contract at as a potential model for other towns to follow.

Aside from dismissing teachers for bad performance, education reform groups have also been calling for teacher tenure laws to be amended so new teachers are not laid off simply because they’re new when districts face firing teaches because of tough budgets.

But Levine said this is a non-issue, and the attention surrounding the matter is unfounded.

She notes that only 1 in 5 contracts use seniority as the sole factor when laying off teachers, according to a survey CEA conducted earlier this year.

“If it’s such a big deal then why aren’t boards of education putting that on the bargaining table? They aren’t,” she said.

In her view, many of the issues facing education in the state come down to money–including higher pay for teachers. In an article published last month in a UConn economic quarterly, Levine said there is a need to “upgrade the status of the teaching profession,” including raising salaries. Many problems, she said during an interview at her office across the street from the state Capital, could be solved with increasing spending on education.

“Reform costs money,” she said. “I don’t think students are suffering from an achievement gap, I think they are suffering from a resource gap.”