FAIRFIELD — Following a speech on education, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush praised Connecticut’s recent education reform package as a success. But comments during his half-hour talk revealed stark ideological differences between him and Gov. Dannel Malloy on the place of labor unions in our schools.
“I don’t think there should be public unions, period. There’s a conflict of interest here,” Bush said Wednesday.
The comment drew applause from the audience in a small auditorium at the General Electric complex, which hosted the event sponsored by the Connecticut Policy Institute. The institute was founded by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, who spoke briefly before Bush.
Bush, son of former President George H.W. Bush and brother of former President George W. Bush, was invited to speak about the education reform his state passed while he was governor. Those changes have seen drastic improvements in Florida’s nationwide standing on education. Bush now serves as the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s board of directors.
The remark on public unions came as Bush was recounting a previous speaking engagement where he made the same statement about public unions.
“Anyway, I said this, whether you agree or not is not the point. The fact was, my next meeting right after the speech was the head of the [National Education Association],” he said getting a laugh out of the crowd.
“I realized I had this meeting and I went ‘Oh, brilliant. Brilliant Jeb, brilliant.’ So the first thing I said was ‘How’d you like my speech?’” Bush recalled saying.
It was a lighthearted story about an awkward situation but it underscores some cultural differences between two states and two governors.
In Florida, Bush helped to push through sweeping changes to the state’s education system, including scrapping tenure for all new teachers, who now work on one-year contracts. He did this over the objections of teachers unions.
“We didn’t have a warm and cordial relationship with Florida’s teachers union,” Bush recalled during a Q&A session. “I view this in one level as a failure on my part. But I think if you stand on principle — I was impatient and passionate. I really wanted to do this fast and quick. I wanted to get every possible thing I could get and go after the next.”
Bush said if he had paused he may have been able to find some consensus, though he kind of doubted it.
But the desire to quickly enact change — and a frustration with resistance — may be a sentiment with which Malloy can empathize. The Democrat had the support of the state’s public sector unions during his close election against Foley, but he’s frequently butted heads with them since taking office.
Soon after taking over, Malloy called for significant concessions from state employees. When state workers initially rejected the negotiated package, he moved forward with layoffs that led to some accusing him of bullying.
Malloy also got off to a rough start with the state’s teachers unions when he suggested during this year’s State of the State address that to get tenure “in today’s system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.”
The comment put off teachers early in a reform debate that saw the unions running ads against Malloy’s plan and teachers protesting on the steps of the state Capitol. But the Malloy administration continued to negotiate with legislators, and legislators continued talking with the unions.
In the end, Malloy didn’t get everything he wanted in the final bill, but he got more than legislative leaders initially wanted to give him, including a transition toward a system that ties tenure to teacher evaluations.
When the governor eventually signed the bill union representatives attended the ceremony. Phil Apruzzese, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said that “all of the nonsense about tenure and its effectiveness will go away” if the state can implement a good evaluation process.
While many in Connecticut called the final product a compromise, Bush sees it as watered down.
“It may not have been exactly what everybody wanted, it looked like it got watered down a little bit because the status quo forces are pretty strong and powerful, at least there’s the perception that they are. But I think that is a success that you’ve started on the journey,” he said.
Bush said starting the process was the most important part, and suggested that lawmakers who were afraid of union “threatening” may be emboldened to enact more change if they’re re-elected.
“‘Hey it turns out I didn’t get my behind chewed into by unions when they threatened me and said that if you vote for this thing, you’re going to get beat,” Bush said.
It’s important that the state view education reform as a process, to be addressed and refined over time, not just an item on a checklist, he said. It did not seem as though Bush viewed unions as a partner in that process.
While he said he’s sure the unions care about the education of students, he said it wasn’t their main objective.
“Their core mission is to protect the economic interests of their members, plain and simple. We have to separate that function, which is the unions’ responsibility, and learning. When there’s a conflict . . . you fight,” he said.
Bush said he couldn’t understand how someone could not be angry about the teachers’ strike that just ended in Chicago.
“Outrageous. I mean, I cannot imagine. That’s not allowed in Florida, thank God, but I cannot imagine teachers striking at the start of a school year,” he said, adding that principals should have the ability to hire good teachers and get rid of the ones who are completely ineffective.
“This is America? This is how it works? We’re casting aside a whole generation rather than saying let’s make teaching a profession. Let’s reward it when we have excellence. When we have mediocrity, let’s develop strategies to improve the capabilities. And when we have abject failure that’s consistent, find another job for the teacher that is damning the life of 20 to 30 children,” Bush said.