The endorsement Monday of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy by the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, came after an unprecedented effort by the union’s leadership to defuse dissatisfaction with the first-term Democrat and raise awareness of what it considers hostile positions by Republican Tom Foley.
For the first time, the CEA brought in the candidates to address more than 200 union delegates at a closed meeting of the membership at a concert venue, the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford. It was an effort to build grass-roots support, allowing the union’s board to vote Friday night for an endorsement.
The board vote came after the union’s political committee voted 8 to 7 two weeks ago against making any endorsement, according to Mark Waxenberg, the union’s executive director. The directors had access to membership polling data that was unavailable to the political committee, he said.
The union has been conducting a rolling, random telephone poll of its members since August. It identified the stability of teachers’ pensions, state funding for public education, and collective-bargaining rights as the top three concerns.
“The CEA leadership and members took great pains to examine the records and positions on education of all the candidates for governor,” said Sheila Cohen, president of the union. “We looked at their past statements and actions, at their questionnaire responses, and their comments in various forums and debates. We did what teachers do: We examined the facts.”
Under Malloy, state funding for education has increased each year, and the union says Malloy is the first governor in Connecticut to fully fund the state’s teacher pension obligations every year.
The endorsement was telegraphed Thursday by the CEA’s participation in a Malloy press conference to criticize Foley’s proposal to allow urban parents to pick the local public school of their choice and strip money from failing schools as their children go elsewhere.
In an endorsement statement Monday, the union said Foley’s “money-follows-the-child” plan, which would apply to students who attend in-district charter schools, would cost struggling school systems $39.5 million, The union’s analysis pegged pegged the loss to three largest cities of Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven at $24 million.
They derived that number by multiplying the number of students attending in-district charters by the dollars that now stay in a public school system after a student enrolls in a charter.
The CEA calculated, for example, that Bridgeport would lose $3,026 for each of the 1,848 students attending charters in the city for a net loss of nearly $5.6 million. In Hartford, the loss would be $6,348 for each of 1,299 charter students for a net loss of $8.2 million. In New Haven, the loss would be $6,362 for each of 1,678 students for a loss of $10.7 million.
“Tom Foley has said he would increase, not decrease, education funding, so the CEA’s prediction that school districts will lose money is unfounded,” his spokesman, Chris Cooper, said in an emailed statement.
Cooper could not be reached to reconcile that statement with Foley’s acknowledgement that his plan would result in some schools being sufficiently starved of funds that they would close.
“In public education in Connecticut, we’ve never had the kind of conversations that Tom Foley is bent on having. We’ve never had them because they would lead to chaos and destruction,” Cohen said.
Malloy angered teachers in 2012 as he unveiled an education reform proposal by saying teachers merely had to show up to win tenure. Unions also have been displeased with his education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, a lawyer who is a co-founder of the Amistad Academy, the flagship of the Achievement First network of charter schools.
Malloy made two gestures to teachers in August, announcing that Pryor would not serve a second term as commissioner and naming an officer of AFT-Connecticut, another teachers’ union, to the State Board of Education in place of a charter school executive.
Waxenberg called the endorsement an “emotionally difficult” decision that was politically easy, once Malloy’s positions and and record were compared to stands by Foley and Joseph Visconti, the petitioning candidate on the ballot.
Had Jonathan Pelto remained in the field, the endorsement could have been more difficult, he said. Pelto, a blogger and former Democratic legislator who quickly went from someone seeking employment in the Malloy administration to one of its most strident critics, especially over education policy, failed to qualify for the ballot as a petitioning candidate.
In a blog posted Monday, Pelto argued that teachers should not vote for Malloy. He reiterated his claim that Malloy had actually sought the elimination of tenure in 2012, an assertion that Waxenberg says is incorrect. Malloy proposed modifications, not repeal, he said.
To begin his second year, the Democratic governor tried to show his political independence by changing how tenure would be won and kept by teachers.
“It’s been said by some that I won’t take on the issue because it will damage my relationship with teachers,” he told the General Assembly in February 2012. Then he made a sharp case for reform: “In today’s system, basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.”
Waxenberg said that statement, for which the governor has apologized, left hurt feelings that jeopardized the endorsement. Some union activists who intend to vote for Malloy saw a no-endorsement vote as a way to share that displeasure, he said.
Overlooked in the dispute was that Malloy engaged the teachers in negotiations after making his pitch to the General Assembly, and those talks led to significant revisions, he said.
“Was it a bad proposal? Absolutey, absolutley,” Waxenberg said. “Did it end up being dropped? Yes.”
Malloy also had proposed a modest version of “money follows the child” in 2012: Local districts would have sent $1,000 for each student that left for a charter school. But it was deleted from the final bill, a compromise negotiated with the unions and legislative leaders.
Waxenberg said Malloy’s treatment of teachers as negotiating partners was crucial.
The union also examined a long strike at T.B. Wood’s Sons after Foley purchased the Pennsylvania-based manufacturer. The strike broke the union, which should be a concern to organized labor, Waxenberg said. Even when Malloy has been at odds with public-employee unions, he has respected collective-bargaining rights and has also take steps to strengthen the teachers’ pension fund, he said.
“The past two years have been pretty frank. His willingness to talk to us has been there, with his staff and him personally and the lieutenant governor,” Waxenberg said. “And we’ve seen some successes, and we are hopeful that we will continue to see them.”
Waxenberg said Malloy connected with the union delegates at the Oakdale, talking about growing up with severe learning disabilities and connecting that experience to his expansion of early childhood education in Connecticut.
“He makes a compelling case, when he is able to shed the political shell and talk personally to teachers about himself and growing up, his personal story, ” Waxenberg said. “It’s something I think the teachers took to heart.”