Waterbury — It’s been decades since teachers and their unions have been this upset, and it began with a governor with ambitious plans appearing to publicly chide their profession.
“In today’s (public education) system, basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in his high-profile State of the State Address on the opening day of the legislative session in February.
His comment has become a spark plug that keeps firing, setting off angry teachers who are having a hard time getting past what they feel was a slap in the face.
“It was insulting. I want an apology,” Jennifer Drury, an English teacher in New Haven. Drury traveled to Malloy’s education forum in Waterbury Tuesday night to hold a poster that read, “I showed up,” mocking his comment.
She has attended five of the governor’s eight recent town hall meetings — aimed at selling his education reform package — with the goal of getting a public apology for teachers. She’s hasn’t had any luck yet.
Malloy has yet to concede anything during these forums, vigorously defending his education proposals in front of an often hostile crowd.
“Change is scary,” he said to his Waterbury audience, summing up the pushback he’s been getting. The group Tuesday night, meeting at Walsh Elementary School, was far more civil than those in the other districts.
But as the end of the legislative session gets closer — it’s scheduled to end May 9 — many teachers are still unhappy.
“They’re feeling they are being disrespected and their profession is being disrespected,” Sharon Palmer, leader of the American Federation of Teachers, said during a recent interview.
When proposals similar to Malloy’s were being considered in other states, teachers and their union leadership flocked to their state capitols to protest. Connecticut teachers haven’t hit that tipping point yet, but the legislature’s Education Committee is scheduled to vote Monday on Malloy’s controversial education reform package.
There are many elements to the package, including giving the state education chief the authority to intervene in the state’s lowest performing schools and expanding state funding for preschool. But the tenure issue continues to be the sore point for many of the state’s public school teachers.
And the Connecticut Education Association has ratcheted up its criticism of the governor by taking its complaints to the airwaves.
“Malloy’s plan doesn’t get it right,” a 32-second CEA television advertisement states.
An online advertisement by the union takes a dig at Malloy’s assertions that the teacher evaluation process he would heavily rely on to determine teachers’ pay and whether they get certified was agreed upon by union leaders.
CEA leaders Mary Loftus Levine and Phil Apruzzese write in the online advertisement that the union “had no discussion and no idea that the framework [they helped] designed would ever be misused and exploited to link evaluation, certification, salary schedules and tenure. This link was beyond our wildest nightmare, but it is precisely what is proposed” by the governor.
Malloy said Tuesday, he’s “just implementing” the evaluation the CEA agreed to.
While administration officials insist that the CEA is “misstating the facts,” the success of Malloy’s promise to have the “most far-reaching” changes to education may ride on teachers getting on board.
But he’s got a lot of work to get there.
Teachers continue to line up waiting for the doors to open for Malloy’s town hall events, including in Waterbury Tuesday.
While Tuesday’s audience was tame, most of his other forums across the state have devolved into shout-fests.
“Have you read your bill?” one dissastified member of the audience shouted out Tuesday. He was the only one to heckle the governor during the hour-long meeting.
In New Haven last week, he agreed to disagree with many of those in the crowd.
“You may not like my answer, but I have done the best I can,” Malloy said, refusing to concede on any part of his proposal so far.
Roy Ochiogrosso, a top adviser to Malloy, said the changes the governor would agree to have yet to be finalized.
On tying a teacher’s evaluation to certification — one of the top grievances voiced by teachers at these forums — Ochiogrosso said, “He’s taking it into account.” Last year, Malloy held similiar town halls on his proposed budget that would increase taxes at record rates. Ochiogrosso said those forums led to Malloy’s agreeing to some revisions to his plan, and the same could happen this year.
Malloy’s current proposal ties these annual teacher evaluations to tenure and pay. When a teacher is slated for dismissal, Malloy’s proposed appeals process would provide the union no opportunity to argue that the evaluation was flawed; its only argument could be that the process was not followed.
The governor’s plans would also limit teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain incentives to attract the best teachers, the transfer of teachers and requiring additional training for staff in the state’s lowest-performing districts.
Malloy is also proposing to extend to one year the time that new teachers are “at-will” employees. Principals can fire “at will” employees without using certain dismissal proceedings.
This bit-by-bit hit at the unions is why teachers are angrier now than in the 1970s when teacher strikes were common, Palmer said.
Loftus Levine has told the legislature’s Education Committee that teachers are so upset because the governor’s bill essentially pulls the state back to the “dark ages of labor history,” a period when a teacher could be fired for getting married.
“I think that we have to work very hard to get a good bill… All they are asking for is fairness,” Palmer said.
Reporter Mark Pazniokas contributed to this report.