Gov. Dannel P. Malloy smiled and gave a thumbs up to Mary Loftus Levine, the leader of a teachers’ union that all but declared war on the governor over education reforms. She smiled back from her assigned seat in the second row.
The brief, silent exchange at a bill-signing ceremony Tuesday spoke volumes about the roller-coaster ride that was education reform. The most divisive issue of the year was signed into law as a broad-based, bipartisan victory.
Malloy entered a function room at the State Capitol to a standing ovation by Democrats and Republicans, education administrators and union members, urban mayors and reform activists, many of whom were locked into a bitter disagreement only 10 days ago.
The governor, who deemed education the top legislative priority of his second legislative session, called the legislation a civil rights bill, a commitment to fix 25 low-performing schools that largely serve the urban poor.
If success has a thousand fathers, they all seemed to find a place in the Old Appropriations Room, along with photogenic children from successful Hartford schools. They surrounded the governor.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who said last week that legislators rescued the reform package, was there. So was House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and the leaders of the GOP minority, Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield and Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk.
Not far away were the Democratic co-chairs of the Education Committee, Sen. Andrea Stillman of Waterford and Rep. Andy Fleischmann of West Hartford, whom Cafero and McKinney had vehemently criticized for not including the GOP in some talks.
Edwin Rosales, a junior at Norwalk High School who testified at a public hearing in favor of the bill, was there, as were students from Jumoke Academy and Achievement First Hartford Academy Elementary, two charter schools Malloy sees as models for reform. Off to the side was Stefan Pryor, the governor’s education commissioner.
Fleischmann said he always was optimistic about passage. In fact, he won a $20 bet with a colleague.
“It’s unusual to be able to get stakeholders who seem to be in such disagreement onto the same page, but I give tremendous credit to the speaker, president of the Senate, the governor’s team for not giving up at the 11th hour, when many might have,” Fleischmann said.
Malloy acknowledged the difficulty in arriving at an agreement. The Connecticut Education Association mobilized against him, and Democratic legislators took issue with his initial focus on tenure reform.
“But we always agreed on one central principle: that we have to fix what’s broken in our public schools,” Malloy said.
In the final days of the session that ended at midnight May 9, the compromise bill passed unanimously in the state House of Representatives and on a bipartisan, 28-7 vote in the Senate.
“The one thing that our nation has routinely turned to as a great equalizer is a sound educational system,” Malloy said.
Malloy said some of the reforms in the bill will take years to achieve.
“But the long debate is over, and the new beginning has just begun,” Malloy said. “We will win this battle. We will improve our scores. We will increase the achievement of our students.”
He sat at a desk and used a series of ceremonial pens to sign the bill into law.
Sharon Palmer, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, applauded from her seat in the second row.
On the other side of the aisle sat Loftus Levine, the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association. She was seated next to Ramani Ayer, the former chief executive of The Hartford who is a member of the Connecticut Council on Education Reform. They were not always in agreement.
How many of the attendees had been at each other’s throats?
“A lot of us,” Palmer said, laughing. “But the outcome is well worth it. We’re going to do some good things for kids and teachers and education.”
Asked the same question, Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff, barely suppressed a smile.
“None,” he said, rolling his eyes. Then he leaned in front of a reporter to embrace Loftus Levine.
“I want to say thank you to Mary. Thank you,” Ojakian said.
“Thank you, we couldn’t have done it without you,” she replied.
“Thank you,” Ojakian said.
It was a thankful bunch.
In April, when her union was running ads against the governor, Loftus Levine called Malloy “disingenuous.”
On Tuesday, Loftus Levine, who is retiring at the end of June, offered a more sympathetic assessment of their differences.
“I think everyone wanted the same things. We just had very different ways of getting there. I think it’s a reflection of what’s wonderful about our state and our country. We can have these arguments and still come back together.”
Loftus Levine said the compromise was facilitated by Connecticut’s small size.
“I think today is very exciting when you look around this room. Connecticut really is a great state to work in,” she said. “Everyone knows everyone. I think it’s all about relationships.”
Even if some of them were bad just 10 days ago.