A day after unveiling his sweeping $128 million education reform proposal, including controversial changes to teacher tenure, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy toured Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden.
It will be the first of many school tours, but the mostly staged event was unlike the unscripted town hall meetings Malloy held last year after his first budget proposal. With the media in tow, Malloy toured several classrooms Thursday and spoke to a handful of teachers before concluding the visit with a press conference.
Asked if he would hold a town hall type event to receive feedback from unionized teachers on his tenure proposal, “I suspect I’m going to hear from their leaders,” Malloy said.
Malloy’s spokesman said the governor will be holding a number of events across the state and will be speaking to everyone involved in education, including parent and teacher organizations.
Meanwhile, AFT Connecticut and the Connecticut Education Association, the two teacher unions, have been meeting with Malloy’s Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor to discuss the proposals, including the one they proposed last month.
Under the current law it takes a minimum of 120 days to dismiss a teacher with tenure. CEA is proposing reducing it to 85 days and limiting the number of arbiters from three to one. Malloy wants teachers to apply and re-apply for tenure every four years. It also ties their certification to their ability to attain tenure.
“I’m pro-teacher, as long as that doesn’t mean defending the status quo, and I’m pro-reform, as long as that isn’t simply an excuse to bash teachers,” Malloy said Wednesday during his speech where he unveiled the teacher tenure proposal.
It was a similar tone evoked last February when he sought $2 billion in concessions from the state’s public employee unions, which came with mixed success. The $2 billion in concessions was reduced to $1.6 billion and did not pass a vote of the membership on the first try.
It’s unclear if the 45,000 state teachers will have a similar reaction to Malloy’s tenure proposal, which is wrapped up in a 163-page bill that also changes the certification process for teachers. But public opinion seems to be on the governor’s side. A Yankee Institute poll of 500 likely voters released earlier this week found that 61 percent of voters support abolishing tenure for public school teachers, while 24 percent want to see tenure remain.
Erin Benham, a literacy teacher at Lincoln Elementary School and president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, said she’s willing to work with Malloy on the issue of tenure.
“We knew it was going to come up,” Benham said Thursday after Malloy’s visit. “We’re not digging our feet in the sand.”
“There’s this attitude across the country of ‘Teacher unions don’t want to see a change in tenure,’ but that’s just not true,” Eric Bailey, a spokesman for the AFT, said in a statement.
“We’ve been saying for years that we’re willing to make a change to the tenure law, but it needs to be the right way with due process for teachers,“ he added. “We can’t have a system in which you can fire a teacher for any reason.”
It was hard for teachers like Benham to comment more fully on the tenure proposal Thursday because the legislation had only been online for less than a day. However, she said she looks forward to the many conversations that will take place over the next few weeks and months.
Malloy is just as anxious to have those conversations.
“I’m talking about tenure. AFT is talking about tenure. CEA is talking about tenure. The nationals are talking about tenure, 31 states have renovated tenure statutes since 2009. Massachusetts has done it, New York has done, Rhode Island has done it, it’s time for Connecticut to do it,” Malloy said.
He said he thinks teachers agree something needs to be done.
“I’d be willing to bet that if you surveyed teachers in a building you’d probably have 90 percent agree with who the successful teachers in the building are, and who the unsuccessful teachers are,” Malloy said.
And he acknowledged there are far fewer bad teachers, than there are excellent teachers.
“We’re just trying to get to a point where we have better tools and we hold people accountable,” Malloy said.
“It’s an interesting thing the tenure discussion because everyone knows there needs to be changes to tenure,” he said. “Everybody has a proposal. And as I said in one of the paragraphs in my speech I look forward to resolving this issue through the legislative process, which obviously will include discussions.”
Patrick Riccards, CEO of ConnCAN, a nonprofit education reform group, said that teacher tenure is always a target in these types of reform debates.
“I think we have to address tenure reform because it simply gets that topic off of the agenda,“ Riccards said Wednesday. “We know that there are some teachers in Connecticut that probably shouldn’t teaching anymore. We have to address that.”
Malloy acknowledged that in many instances districts and schools recognize what needs to be done in order to improve student achievement, but in some cases a lack of will and in others a lack of resources contributed to not getting it done.
“We know that there are strategies that work and we know that those strategies aren’t necessarily being replicated system to system or even within the same system, building to building,” Malloy said. “I think this visit and I’m sure others will highlight what is our commitment to getting education right in Connecticut.”