Two upstart northeastern governors of opposite parties have been called bullies. They’re very competitive and both are fighting uphill battles against the education establishment. Care to guess who I’m talking about?
Fueling the ongoing rivalry between Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the notion that Christie has balanced the budget on the backs of government workers and the poor, while requiring little sacrifice from taxpayers. Democrat Malloy, on the other hand, adopted a “shared sacrifice” approach, demanding union concessions and enacting a record tax increase.
Reasonable people can disagree on whose strategy was best, but in the area of education reform, the two are running neck-and-neck in the lack-of-results department. Perhaps prefiguring Malloy’s fate, Christie has called his failure last year to get comprehensive education reform passed in the state legislature his “biggest disappointment.”
Granted, the New Jersey governor has been in office a year longer than his Connecticut counterpart and, unlike Malloy, Republican Christie faces a legislature dominated by the opposing party. But the educational patterns are similar: both states have standardized test scores which, on average, look pretty good, while the poor and those in the inner cities lag well behind.
Both new governors came out swinging against the teachers unions, though Malloy waited 12 months. Setting the tone in his state-of-the-state address earlier this year, Malloy asserted emphatically that, “Basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.”
What a colossal mistake. State teachers union boss Mary Loftus Levine told FOX-CT’s Laurie Perez last month that Malloy’s comment was “a sound byte that caused a media storm.” Wrong. It was a sound byte that caused a severe teacher storm. And like the tornadoes that ravaged north Texas earlier this week, this storm won’t die down until after it’s done some real damage.
Tenure reform is necessary, but to paint the existing system in such disparaging terms needlessly insulted teachers and sowed the seeds of doubt that have haunted Malloy’s reform efforts to this day. In a display of reciprocal disrespect, one teacher in Windham at a town hall meeting on education reform told the governor his plan is “cynical and fraudulent.” And those sentiments were echoed by many other angry teachers during Malloy’s attempts at damage control during his education reform road show.
Look, we all know that Malloy was academically abused when he was a child. In a story the learning disabled governor loves to repeat, some of his elementary school teachers told the young Dannel as late as fourth grade that he was mentally retarded and would amount to nothing. So one can understand how Malloy became jaded and unforgiving of bad teachers. But he shouldn’t have let his resentment get the better of him.
Shockingly, things went even farther downhill from there. Malloy’s education department made a ham-handed attempt to take over the Bridgeport schools, one of 25 districts the department had identified as failing. By a vote of 6-1, the state Supreme Court overturned the decision. The governor then tried a shortcut legislative fix using something called “emergency certification,” prompting liberal defense attorney Norm Pattis to brand Malloy the “goose-stepping governor.” Oh, and former Democratic state representative Jonathan Pelto has been hammering away on a daily basis.
Then there was what Courant blogger Rick Green so aptly called “The Stinker” — a wee bit of special language tucked inside Malloy’s education bill that would have awarded former Hartford schools chief Steve Adamowski a pension for his five years of service to the capital city — even though he was ineligible for one because he’d allowed his Connecticut superintendent’s license to lapse.
Finally, over a weekend late last month at an undisclosed office building in Hartford, legislators, union officials and the governor’s chief of staff met in a marathon session behind closed doors and essentially let organized labor weaken Malloy’s education bill to exclude tenure reform and other unpleasant measures.
The secret meeting was so odious that The Courant felt compelled to write an editorial quoting the late teachers union President Albert Shanker, who famously said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
Malloy has tried with limited success to play good-cop-bad-cop, staunchly defending his executive order allowing state daycare and home healthcare workers to unionize and traveling recently to a hospital in Norwich, where he climbed atop a flat-bed truck and shouted his support for nurses who were locking horns with management over a new labor agreement.
But I’m afraid it’s too little, and perhaps too late. It was a given that Republicans and the business community would sour quickly on Malloy after he proposed and rammed the largest tax increase in state history through the legislature. But when you step on the toes of one of the most powerful Democratic special interests in the state, you leave yourself with little margin for error. If you’re going to pick a fight with the unions, how about pursuing something more meaningful and possible, such as school choice?
Back in the Garden State, Christie’s job approval ratings have steadily climbed over the last year to 54 percent. As memories of the tax increase fades, so, too, has Malloy gained ground to 45 percent, up 10 points from a year ago. But unlike Christie, who still has his base, Malloy has lost the support not only of teachers, but of powerful state employee unions who remain distrustful of him in the wake of the givebacks he extracted from them during last year’s budget crisis. Unfortunately for Malloy, that battle didn’t even win him any friends in the GOP, which cites the no-layoff agreement and insists much of savings from the givebacks will never materialize.
But most importantly, unlike Christie, if things don’t improve, Malloy could face a primary challenge from the left in 2014. You heard it here.