Malloy frames education reforms as human rights issue

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised today in a wide-ranging radio interview that his planned education reforms would be “the most far-reaching in our state’s history,” a bold assertion certain to raise expectations about how he intends to improve troubled districts in an era of tight finances.

In a one-hour interview on WNPR’s “Where We Live” about his first year and the year ahead, Malloy said his administration is preparing to concentrate attention and resources on 29 under-performing school systems that are failing students – while somehow maintaining aid to all municipalities. He has yet to say whether he will cut state funding to wealthier districts.

Audio of full interview

With few details expected until he delivers his budget and State of the State address to the General Assembly on Feb. 8, Malloy is working to frame the narrative for his second year as governor, using broad and dramatic language.

Malloy WNPR

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Chion Wolf/WNPR)

“This is an issue of civil rights, of human rights,” Malloy said. “We can’t afford to give up on 40 to 60 percent of the young people living in some of our urban areas.  It is morally repugnant to do that.”

Malloy, an urban mayor narrowly elected in 2010 as the first Democratic governor in 20 years, proved adept last year in convincing fellow Democrats to endorse a dizzying freshman agenda that included a record tax increase, labor concessions, a higher-education reorganization and a $1.1 billion investment in bioscience.

Now, he will test how compliant – or ambitious – the legislature might be in an election year dominated by presidential politics, a fragile economy and general pessimism about the direction of the state and nation.

His one-hour appearance today on “Where We Live,” which was simulcast live on CT-N, the state’s public affairs cable network, is part of the Malloy administration’s plan to shake off the inertia of the holidays and do what it did best in 2011: dominate the public discussion about the role of government.

His latest campaign – he oversees an administration forever in campaign mode – began last week on his first anniversary governor, a day packed with events intended to remind voters of his first-year accomplishments and to engage them on what’s to come.

“The holidays are over,” Malloy said brightly on his anniversary at a ceremonial signing of legislation that commits the state to $291 million to build and subsidize a genetics lab at the UConn Health Center, part of a larger bioscience investment. “It’s back to work on a 24-hour basis. I’ve been looking forward to a day like this.”

Also on his anniversay, he addressed a workshop he called on education reform, which attracted Randi Weingarten, the national leader of the American Federation of Teachers and Martha Kanter, the Obama administration’s undersecretary of education.

Malloy has released his six principles of reform to shape the education debate, similar to an approach he took last year in setting parameters on spending cuts and tax increases before the budget debate. He has yet to talk in detail about what his plan would cost or how he would pay for it.

“First of all, let’s hope the economy continues to improve. That would be helpful,” Malloy said today. “We’re not talking about new taxes, so we may talk about reallocation of resources.”

“Reallocation” is a word that causes jitters in towns with high-performing schools. Malloy noted he has promised municipalities he would maintain overall state aid to them in 2012. School district officials are waiting to see what his next move will be on the level of state funding he wants to send to their districts.

Details will come no later than Feb. 8, when Malloy must propose any changes to the biennial budget adopted last year.

“We’re not far away from laying out both what we think the budget adjustments need to be, as well as I think what will be noted to be more of the more aggressive educational reform proposals, certainly the most far reaching in our state’s history and probably one of the most far-reaching in the nation,” Malloy said.

In a state with two landmark court decisions on education reform and one major case that is pending, that is a significant promise.

In Horton vs. Meskill, the state Supreme Court forced the state into a funding formula in the 1970s that was intended to equalize education spending. Sheff vs. O’Neill yielded a push in the 1990s toward greater racial and economic integration in Greater Hartford.

In 2010, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of all students to an adequate education, allowing a case brought in 2005 by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding to go forward. As mayor of Stamford, Malloy signed on as a plaintiff.

But as of Friday, the administration has not yet met with lawyers for the coalition to talk about remedies to what critics say is a defective system of funding public education in Connecticut. The case is pending.

Then-Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, reacted to the court’s decision in March 2010, when the identity of the next governor was unknown, by saying he agreed that the current system of funding education, with its heavy reliance on the property tax, is broken. But fixing it, especially in today’s economic climate, will be extremely difficult.

He made a prediction: “For this to change as dramatically as the plaintiffs intend it to change, it’s going to take an awful lot of political courage from whoever is the next governor, working with the General Assembly.”