West Hartford — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy came to this high-performing school district Tuesday night to confront teachers who see his education reforms as little more than an overhaul of how educators are evaluated and paid.
Malloy was met with hard stares and a few derisive chuckles when he insisted that his proposals to change teacher evaluations and tenure are reasonable elements of a broader package necessary to rescue failing school districts.
“You think about how hard this might be for you to make the changes required here,” Malloy said. “Think about how hard it would be to live raising a child in a city with a school district that is not meeting that child’s needs.”
Teachers from across the region filled most of the 370 seats in a school auditorium at the Charter Oak magnet school, while another 45 were directed to an overflow room and 100 more were turned away from Malloy’s second education forum, a local official said.
Politicians in the audience included Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the Education Committee, one of the lawmakers trying to bridge a politically uncomfortable gap Malloy has opened with unionized teachers.
Long after Malloy had left, Fleischmann remained with about 200 local teachers in a closed-door meeting to talk about their objections to the bill, which he said is the subject of continuing negotiations with legislators, teachers and the administration.
“We have separate branches of government, and we have a legislature for a reason. It’s our job to take an initial proposal and refine it. And we’re working on doing that,” he said. “I think there are some questions that were raised tonight that do reflect areas of the bill that may need some refinement.”
He declined to name them.
The Malloy administration has emphasized the willingness of a Democratic governor to take on unionized teachers over tenure as an important theme in his push for reforms. One obvious consequence is skepticism, if not hostility, to his plan by teachers.
“When looking at the totality of the bill, I think it’s fair to say that critical elements involving turnaround of low-performing school districts and low-performing schools have been overshadowed by this one topic,” Fleischmann said. “If you were to do a content analysis of the bill, I think you would see how disproportionate the discussion of the tenure issue has been.”
In their questions, teachers repeatedly suggested that Malloy’s emphasis on teacher evaluations, tenure and pay suggest that they are problems for low-performing schools, not the challenges of poverty and other factors that leave some children unprepared to begin their education.
One teacher held a sign that described her work history: time in an urban school, where her students performed below grade levels, and time in a suburban school, where her students excel. It asked the question: Is she suddenly a better teacher in the suburbs?
Malloy repeatedly told the teachers that their concerns were misplaced: The heart of his changes in evaluating teachers was negotiated with their unions.
“Your union negotiated this through a two-year process,” Malloy responded to an East Hartford high school teacher’s criticisms. “They celebrated the adoption of those standards.”
But that characterization is incomplete.
Union leadership did agree in January to a framework on evaluations, including having about one-quarter of a teacher’s grade tied to his or her students’ standardized test scores.
But they did not sign onto the next step Malloy is asking state legislators to approve: He wants these evaluations used to determine teachers’ pay, whether they earn tenure, or if a teacher is so ineffective he should be dismissed.
“We’ve agreed to a framework,” Mary Loftus Levine, leader of the state’s largest teachers union, said on WNPR’s Where We Live Wednesday morning. “We haven’t backed away from anything. What we are, I believe, not in sync with in the governor’s bill is a different issue than the evaluation system. It is that, how do you use evaluation fairly? And the bigger question is, why would you tie it to someone’s license?”
Malloy also wants to stop awarding automatic pay increases for graduate degrees.
“If you have a master’s and you are a masterful teacher, you will be recognized,” Malloy told a teacher now in graduate school. “But if you are bad teacher who has a master’s degree, why should you get extra compensation?”
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this report.