Malloy confronts school inequities: ‘The civil rights issue of our time’
An occasional series examining the legacy of the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the challenges awaiting his successor, Ned Lamont.
His first day on the job in January 2011, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy went before the General Assembly to declare that the state was facing an economic and employment crisis, created in part by “a lack of educational resources.”
The Democrat told lawmakers during that first State of the State Address that pervasive issues have been, “coddled by a habit of political sugarcoating that has passed our problems onto the next generation.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, the next generation is here.”
Cheers and applause followed his declaration.
But then it came time for the Democratic-controlled legislature to act on the governor’s vision.
Malloy would spend the next eight years of his tenure in what he recently described as “pitched battles” with “weak-kneed” Democrats over various education reforms he believed were long overdue: redistributing state education aid to impoverished school districts, increasing the state’s involvement in chronically failing schools, changing how teachers earn and keep tenure, and opening more charter schools.
“I am proud of being a Democrat, but in the state legislature some of my strongest opposition to what we did in Connecticut came from Democrats,” the outgoing governor told a national crowd in November during a conference in Colorado hosted by Education Reform Now, a nonprofit that campaigns for politicians and issues and is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform.
Democrats, he said, “found that supporting their local teachers or their local board of education, or their local whatever, was an acceptable excuse to accept what we know is not tolerable – that poor children, and black children, and brown children do not get the education and opportunities they deserve.”
The stakes were high.
Connecticut was being sued by a group of parents, teachers and municipal leaders who said the state underfunds troubled schools and that case was headed for trial. Schools across the state were also facing a list of repercussions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act if the state didn’t make certain changes.
But for Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years when he took office in 2011, improving education and eliminating the yawning disparities between students of color and their classmates was a moral imperative. The governor, who often points to the severe learning disabilities he struggled to overcome in school, routinely points to the thousands of children stuck in underperforming schools as justification for his hands-on approach.
The state for years has had the dubious distinction of having some of the largest gaps in the country in achievement between minority students and their white classmates, and also between students from low-income families and their peers.
“Our public schools once led the nation and now Connecticut leads in achievement gaps. Education is the civil rights issue of our time. This is our opportunity,” Malloy said when introducing controversial reforms that led to hundreds of angry teachers protesting outside the state Capitol alongside Democratic legislators.
The General Assembly opted to take a pass on Malloy’s lightning rod reforms and instead passed scaled back legislation that nearly every legislator and interest group could support. But when it came time to implement the changes scheduled in the new law, pushback from various groups or fiscal contraints greeted the rollout – and only some have survived.
The vexing achievement gaps also survived.
“There is a lot of work left to be done obviously on this major task before us, which is the achievement gap,” said Allan B. Taylor, who has been chairman of the State Board of Education for the last 14 years. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress and we’ve got a long way to go still.”
There’s consensus that the gap remains a nagging problem.
“We are at a time when we have to decide where we are going. We still have an achievement gap that goes well beyond what is acceptable,” said Robert Rader, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
And with a new administration and legislature comes opportunity to once again make changes that will narrow the achievement gaps.
Malloy’s tell-it-like-it-is personality and resolute governing style will soon be replaced with what seems to be the more affable approach of Gov.-Elect Ned Lamont.
Malloy – who seemingly expended all his political capital with lawmakers – says he hopes Lamont has the guts to stand strong against countervailing political pressures to do what’s right for students struggling in school.
“My hope is that Ned Lamont comes in as the next governor of the State of Connecticut [and] that there will be no slippage backwards, that we continue to talk about this in the terms that it needs to be spoken about,” Malloy said.
“Will we throw more children away or will we do what we know works? And will we hold ourselves accountable? But as a Democrat, more importantly to me, will we hold other Democrats accountable when they get weak-kneed about this issue, when they fold for teachers or people who say misinformation about charter schools? These are very real issues,” he concluded.
Much can be learned from Malloy’s eight-year tenure of battling with members of his own party and Democratic strongholds as Lamont forges his own path.
Both men came into office pledging to be “The Education Governor.”
Malloy’s record: teachers
Had the governor had his way in 2012, teachers would have been required to be evaluated every year and student test scores would play a role in their ratings. School leaders would then be able to use those ratings to make dismissal decisions, and poorly rated teachers could lose their tenure and be fired. The governor also wanted to limit the teachers’ unions ability to collectively bargain for the transfer of teachers from the worst-performing schools to different schools.
The governor especially riled teachers when he said during his second annual address that, “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.”
At the time, the leader of the state’s largest teachers union summarized the governor’s bill as threatening to return the state “to the dark ages of labor history.”
The governor, who seldom publicly acknowledges regret or mistakes, apologized three years later as he sought reelection for the language he had used. He also urged people to look at the compromises that he ultimately signed into law that were widely supported.
His proposal to have teachers receive numerous “exemplary” or “proficient” evaluations to earn and keep their tenure was scaled back to require an “effective” grade to earn tenure, and an “ineffective” grade to lose tenure. No change was approved to link evaluations to certification and pay. The state education board would later retreat from its requirement that student test scores be factored into a teacher’s evaluation.
The controversial changes Malloy had proposed for the working conditions in the lowest performing schools, such as bypassing legal challenges when teachers contested changes at the school, were largely stripped from the bill. He also wanted to allow for the option, when the state intervened to help struggling schools, of requiring every teacher to reapply for their job.
Instead, Malloy settled for preserving existing union contracts and requiring negotiation “with respect to salaries, hours and other conditions of employment of such turnaround plans.” A “turnaround committee” — half appointed by the teachers’ union and the other half by school officials — is responsible for developing changes. If the panel cannot reach an agreement, or the commissioner does not deem the plan significant enough, the education commissioner develops a plan.
Six years into this approach of the state intervening in these so-called “Commissioner’s Network” schools, the results have been a mixed bag, state officials report.
Backed by Malloy, the state board mustered the political courage to finally overhaul its standards and set higher expectations for what students should know on standardized tests. Those standards – the Common Core State Standards and the test aligned with those standards – were intended to raise the bar.
The rollout of Common Core was incredibly controversial. Hundreds of teachers, students, and those opposed to testing rallied outside the state Capitol, legislators held special hearings on the issue, dozens of bills were filed to restrict implementation, and the state’s largest teachers union ran TV and radio ads to put pressure on lawmakers.
The furor has since subsided and the new standards are in place.
Lamont – who the teachers’ unions endorsed in the primaries when he ran unsucessfully against Malloy in 2010 – seems to have learned from Malloy’s turbulent experience with teachers. He did support Malloy’s controversial reforms at the time, however.
During the 2018 campaign, Lamont said he wants to work with teachers and not bash the work they are doing.
“When you talk about accountability, often people are talking about firing people and I think that sends the wrong message,” he said. “Yeah, you have some last resorts if things aren’t working, but I want to give people pride in teaching and respect in what they’re doing. … I know how tough the situation is in a lot of these districts.”
Malloy’s record: funding education
Much of Malloy’s efforts focused on funneling more money to the lowest-achieving districts.
During his first term, lawmakers and Malloy decided to pay for that – and close a massive structural state budget deficit – by implementing a historic tax increase. By the time the 2014 school year began, the state was sending districts an additional $149 million for education compared to 2011 – 90 percent of which went to the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts.
During his second term, however, Malloy insisted on a different approach to funding increases to impoverished school districts as the state budget continued to be plagued with deficits – and shortly after a school-funding trial wrapped up.
“There will be a shift. There will absolutely be a shift,” Malloy said when unveiling his proposal in 2017 while standing in the library of an elementary school that was at the center of the trial. “We are failing children because their parents are poor.”
But efforts to redistribute existing state education aid from wealthy towns to poor districts didn’t sit well with the dozens of legislators being asked to cut state aid for their municipalities – Democrats included. So instead of deep cuts, legislators adopted a state budget that approved very minor cuts, rolled out over 10 years, for the wealthiest municipalities.
That same budget, however, tasked Malloy with finding huge savings after lawmakers were unable to reach agreement on how to get a budget through the General Assembly.
With a governor willing to use his authority and political capital to gut aid to certain towns, and get legislative increases for others, a much larger share of state education aid now goes to the state’s most impoverished districts than when Malloy entered office.
Greenwich – where Lamont lives – lost the most state aid during Malloy’s tenure. That affluent town lost $3.4 million, a 99 percent cut. Waterbury saw the largest fiscal increase, $19.7 million, and Danbury had the largest percentage increase, with a 36 percent boost.
When foisting the responsibility for making the cuts onto Malloy, lawmakers also promised additional state funding for the low-achieving districts – about $40 million each year for the next 10 years.
Promising additional aid has been a common theme over the decades. So, too, has not delivering on that promise.
Over the last 20 years, the formula has been fully funded twice. However, in more recent years the gap between the amount of aid the formula requires and what has actually been allocated has grown along with the state’s fiscal difficulties.
During the campaign, Lamont was non-committal about the promised increases made by the legislature during the last session.
“It’s a worthy goal. It would be my first priority, but I cannot promise that. I’ve got a two billion deficit,” he said. “I can’t over-promise. … I am just trying to do everything I can to do no harm as I go through this brutal budget year coming up.”
Lamont also wouldn’t rule out redistributing more of the existing pot of education aid to poor communities.
“We’ll see. Generally, I think that we ought to focus our money on the towns that are the most in need given the incredible achievement gap in this state,” he said. “I would keep the overall grant the same, not town-by-town, but the overall grant.”
One issue that Lamont will not face is legal uncertainty about whether the state is spending enough on education. The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that the state is providing students in Connecticut’s most impoverished school districts with the minimally adequate education the state constitution mandates.
Even still, Taylor, the longtime chairman of the state education board, said more resources are needed to make a difference. Past attempts at reform have been blunted by not having enough money to implement necessary changes, he said.
“Things have been scaled back. I think that’s in large part because of the fiscal crunch. The state didn’t have the resources to make the biggest difference,” Taylor said. “Unless we can provide all the resources districts need, and I don’t think we ever have, I don’t think we’re going to get the dramatic changes we need.”
Malloy’s record: school choice
During Malloy’s tenure school choice options for Connecticut students – magnets, charters and vocational schools – have increased steadily. The year before he took office there were nearly 44,000 students attending non-traditional public schools they had to win a lottery to attend – that’s one in 13 public school students. Last school year, nearly 64,000 students attended schools of choice, or one in eight students.
Malloy has been unwavering in his support for spending millions to open new charter schools, which has frustrated several Democratic legislators who think the money would be better spent on their local neighborhood schools.
It became such an issue that more than a dozen Democratic legislators threatened to vote against any state budget that increased spending on charter schools and not local neighborhood schools.
The governor’s support for magnet schools has been unsteady, however.
Opening regional magnet schools that draw minority students from the suburbs to attend schools with minority youth from Hartford has been the state’s primary approach to integrating schools. The state Supreme Court ruled 22 years ago that children “suffer daily” from the effects of attending segregated schools.
With about half of Hartford youth still attending segregated schools, the governor has stood firm against opening additional magnet schools to offer more students an integrated education. Instead, he has argued the state must focus its efforts – and funding – on neighborhood schools.
Lamont said he is not supportive of opening new magnet or charter schools.
“I just worry about how we get them funded. I am trying to do no harm for our existing districts, our districts most in need. So let me be very careful before I promise funding to any new alternatives,” Lamont said of charter schools. “I am focused on doing everything I can to raise [neighborhood schools] up.”
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