Malloy feeds on confrontation at education forum

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy got the unscripted confrontations he wanted Thursday night at his first education forum: teachers willing to mix it up over tenure reform, and a Bridgeport parent and former official furious over the state takeover of that city’s troubled schools.

In a community center in Hartford’s South End, the first stop on a tour that will take him across the state to sell a plan for education reforms, Malloy repeatedly warned that failure by teachers and schools must have consequences.


Malloy makes a point with a skeptical educator.

“I just want to get to the point where we don’t give excuses why we can’t educate our children,” Malloy told one woman with 23 years as a Hartford teacher and counselor.

For an hour, the governor repeatedly came back to a need for consequences. His proposals include a teacher evaluation system that would help struggling teachers, but remove those who cannot eventually improve their performance.

“In everything biological, there are consequences,” Malloy said after the forum. “In every profession — not every one, most professions — there are consequences. For reform to take hold, of course there need to be consequences.”

Education reform is Malloy’s major initiative in his second year as governor, a topic he will discuss Friday morning at 8 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” at a program broadcast live from a high school in Fort Lee, N.J.

Malloy is an adequate speaker with a prepared text, but the tour is designed to energize him with the unscripted moments that play to his strength: parrying complaints and criticisms about public policy. On Thursday night in the Village South community center, the format delivered.

He took questions from audience members chosen by lottery, and first up was Maria Pereira, who filled the room with a barely contained fury over the state’s takeover of the Bridgeport schools. She was on the board dissolved by the state.

A lawsuit she brought yielded a Supreme Court decision this week that concluded the state had erred by not offering training to the school board before it took over — an action that a majority of the board actually endorsed. The Malloy administration is weighing seeking emergency legislative action to authorize a new takeover.

The Bridgeport case is not directly part of his legislative reform package now before the General Assembly, but the governor’s proposal would give the state more control over the worst performing schools, just as it would give school boards a process by which it could eventually dismiss poorly performing tenured teachers.

“I want to know if your plans to reform our schools are all about disenfranchising parents and schools all over the state, like you are attempting to do in Bridgeport,” Periera demanded, standing at a microphone.

He let her vent, ignoring applause from her supporters in the rear of the room. But he did not try to mollify her.

“You asked me some questions, so let me ask you a couple,” Malloy replied. “We’ll have a dialogue. How happy are you with the Bridgeport schools and their achievement level?”

“Schools in Bridgeport need to improve,” Periera said. “I will say this, though: You don’t do it by disenfranchising parents. Parents are part of the solution, not part of the problem. And as a registered voter in that city, I have a right to elect my board of education members, as does over 60,000 registered voters in that city. It’s not your decision to take that away from the city of Bridgeport — or any other municipality in this state.”

Malloy did not apologize for the takeover, nor did he hesitate to criticize the board to which Periera belonged.

“I wish you lived in a city that had actually responded to its requirements — to educate all of the children, including your own children, in appropriate fashion, which you know and I know hasn’t been happening,” Malloy said. “Really, can you look at me and say that the Bridgeport Board of Education has done a good job in the last 10 years?”

Pereira retorted that it hasn’t done a good job in 20 years, because it was controlled by members of the governor’s party, the Democrats.

“For you to say we don’t have the intelligence to have Bridgeport voters do the right thing by electing their officials is really disgraceful,” she said, her voice booming. “This is a democracy, not tyranny. This is a democracy, not a dictatorship.”

Malloy began to answer, but Pereira interrupted. He stopped her.

“You’re done, so I’m going to speak now,” Malloy said, his voice even.

He told her that tyranny is sending children to failing schools year after year without improvement. The new board has brought in a new superintendent with a national reputation.

“Do you honestly think things would be better off today in Bridgeport than they were before a new superintendent was brought in?” Malloy asked. “Can you honestly say to the children sitting in those classrooms that they actually have a chance to reasonably compete with other districts?

“We can argue until the cows come home about the process, but you can’t deny that we’re letting people down by the thousands — by the thousands — in the largest school district in the state of Connecticut.”

After the forum, Malloy said, “I don’t want to take anybody over. I do want to be able to step and supervise in a sense the 25 lowest-performing schools. If we don’t do that, there is no penalty for being in the low performing category.”

He had no sympathy for Pereira’s complaint about being disenfranchised. He described the the court’s reversal of the takeover as based on a procedural error by a previous state education commissioner, not a substantive rebuke.

“The woman who came from Bridgeport, she didn’t deny the children had been let down terribly, didn’t deny it at all,” Malloy said. “She just wants to argue about whether the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed.”

During the forum, Malloy was challenged by two teachers over tenure, including a woman who identified herself as a counselor in a Hartford magnet school who says poor student performance has more to do with environment than teachers.

“Tenure is not the reason our schools are struggling. Many students in urban and poor districts come to school hungry, without appropriate medical care and without a safe place to live,” she said. “This is where the achievement gap begins, and where it first must be addressed.”

“You are absolutely right,” Malloy said.

“I know, thank you,” she replied.

The governor said his plan to expand early-childhood education is a first step toward addressing that environment.

Malloy downplayed his tenure reforms, even though he made them the centerpiece of his State of the State Address a month ago, describing them as bold challenges to the status quo by a Democratic governor who needs to stay on decent terms with public-employee unions.

“Number one, we don’t do a whole lot about tenure in this package. I don’t know what you’ve been told by other people,” Malloy said. “What we do is we implement the evaluation system that your union has already agreed to.”

In January, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who sat with Hartford’s mayor and school superintendent during the forum Thursday, announced an agreement with teachers’ unions and superintendents for a new system to evaluate teachers. It would rely on student performance, as well as observation of teachers and feedback from parents and colleagues.

But a week ago, the leader of the Connecticut Education Association urged the legislature’s Education Committee to reject the plan, and the American Federation of Teachers expressed misgivings.

Malloy may have been correct in telling the counselor about her union’s original endorsement, but glossed over its present opposition. It is something he must overcome.

As he left the community center, facing a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call for Friday to make his appearance on MSNBC, the governor said the conversation with teachers over tenure would continue. The next forum is March 6 in West Hartford at a time and place to be announced

His first forum was announced with just two days notice, leaving teachers with little time to organize attendance Thursday night. But Sharon Palmer, the president of AFT Connecticut, said she expected her members to eventually take advantage of the opportunity to publicly question and debate the governor.