Gov. Dannel P. Malloy used a televised State of the State address Wednesday to jump into the thicket of teacher tenure reform, a popular issue with voters, yet fraught with potential pitfalls for a Democrat narrowly elected with the support of organized labor.
In a speech to the General Assembly, Malloy framed his first year as one of hard-won successes and cast himself as a reformer intent of using his second year to make Connecticut a national leader in education and economic revival.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for us to lead again,” Malloy said. “Let’s think big. Let’s be bold.”
The 39-minute speech was written by his senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, who managed Malloy’s messaging during an unsuccessful campaign in 2006 and his triumph in 2010, when Malloy became the first Democrat elected governor since William A. O’Neill won re-election in 1986.
The address marked the start of the regular session of the General Assembly. It was an unabashed call for the legislature to once again let him set the public agenda, this time in a year in which they are up for re-election and he is not.
Malloy glossed over the state’s continuing fiscal challenges he and the legislature could confront this year, asserting that he restored fiscal stability by erasing a gaping structural deficit in his first year, and now the state must move forcefully onto the intertwined issues of education and jobs.
“Today, I am challenging the people in this chamber and business leaders across the state to join me in committing to build nothing less than a full-scale economic revival,” Malloy said. “Not a recovery, a revival.”
Malloy’s speech was a defense of his 13 tumultuous months in office and a map for what he hopes lays ahead in 2012. A year ago, the Democratic majority in the legislature denied the Democratic governor no significant item on his agenda.
He cast his solutions to an inherited fiscal crisis — a historic tax increase, labor concessions and some spending cuts — as nothing less than heroic actions by a new governor and the legislators who backed him. Together, he said, they eschewed fiscal gimmicks and made hard, overdue choices.
“To the men and women in this chamber who stood with me to make some of those tough decisions, I salute you,” Malloy said. “It took courage to cast some of those votes, and your constituents should be proud of you.”
In a speech constructed around a call for education reform, it took the governor a full 20 minutes to arrive at his key topic. He recapped reforms he has rolled out in recent weeks: increased funding, better early childhood education, higher standards for teachers and diminished red tape.
Then said, “We must do one more thing.”
And that is tenure reform. His call for tenure reform was offered as both a policy proposal and a declaration of his approach to governing, a continuation of a narrative his administration has proffered since his first day in office, that Malloy is daring.
“Now, I’m a Democrat. I’ve been told that I can’t, or shouldn’t, touch teacher tenure,” Malloy said. “It’s been said by some that I won’t take on the issue because it will damage my relationship with teachers.”
Standing at a lectern facing the a joint session of the legislature in the ornate, high-ceiling House chamber, Malloy paused for effect.
“If the people in this chamber — and those watching on TV or online, or listening on the radio — if you’ve learned nothing else about me in the past 13 months, I hope you’ve learned this: I do what I say I’m going to do, and I do what I think is right for Connecticut, irrespective of the political consequences,” he said.
The line was rewarded with applause.
“And so when I say it’s time we reform teacher tenure, I mean it,” Malloy said. “And when I say I’m committed to doing it in the right way, I mean it.”
He referred 16 times to “tenure,” a focus in 2012, and only twice to “deficit,” the overwhelming challenge of 2011.
Using talking points that will make some unionized teachers cringe, Malloy described current-day tenure rules as too protective of the incompetent and too restrictive on administrators trying to raise standards.
“Right now, if you’re a teacher and you have tenure, your performance in the classroom has to be rated ‘incompetent’ before a dismissal process can even begin. Even then — even if you’re rated ‘incompetent’ — it can take more than a year to dismiss you,” he said.
“And to earn that tenure — that job security — in today’s system, basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours,” Malloy said. “The bottom line? Today tenure is too easy to get and too hard to take away.”
The governor quickly pivoted, distancing himself from those who would “demonize” teachers. He tried, with mixed results, to draw a similar distinction a year ago as he demanded labor concessions, while defending labor’s right to bargain.
“I’m trying to be careful in explaining this tenure reform proposal because I know there are those who will deliberately mischaracterize it in order to scare teachers,” he said.
“So let me be very clear: we are not talking about taking away teachers’ rights to a fair process if an objective, data-driven decision is made to remove them from the classroom. I believe deeply in due process,” he said.