Three weeks ago, I guessed that Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state’s 44,000 public school teachers would kiss and make up in advance of the governor’s presumptive candidacy for re-election. I noted that Malloy had taken some “baby steps” in his attempt to heal the wounds caused by his impulsive remarks about teacher tenure two years ago.
Last week in his quest for redemption, Malloy went from baby steps to leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He announced in a joint letter with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and the top two Democratic leaders in the General Assembly that he supports delaying the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system — a labor-intensive model much loathed by educators — that was part of a controversial education reform bill he signed in 2012. The letter asks that a panel of classroom teachers be formed to share their experiences and make recommendations to lawmakers and the governor’s office by Jan. 1, 2015, which, conveniently, would be several weeks after his re-election.
In the same breath, Malloy also announced that he will nix a plan to spend $1 million on a public relations and advertising campaign to promote the Common Core State Standards, a previously popular program that has fallen into increasing disfavor with teachers across the country.
With straight faces, both Malloy and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey denied the two moves had anything to do with politics. And in a peculiar display of bipartisanship, Republicans, some of whom had been critical of the governor for moving too fast on education, applauded Malloy for belatedly coming around to their way of thinking.
But Malloy wasn’t finished spreading good cheer to teachers. A couple of days later, the governor put the icing on the cake. He proposed exempting half of the pension income of Connecticut’s teachers from the state income tax. If approved by the General Assembly, Malloy’s proposal would cost the state treasury almost $50 million over the next two years.
Malloy promptly cast his teachers’ tax proposal as a matter of simple fairness. Connecticut’s income tax currently exempts between 75 and 100 percent of federally taxable Social Security income, depending on the taxpayer’s gross income. Connecticut teachers haven’t been covered by Social Security since at least 1959, when the General Assembly permanently exempted public school teachers at the request of the union that represents most of them — the Connecticut Education Association.
It’s difficult to see how the current system is unfair to teachers. True, their pension income is effectively taxed at a higher rate than the income of Social Security recipients. But teachers never had upwards of 6 percent of their pay deducted for Social Security either. Over the course of a 30-year career, that’s a considerable savings.
At any rate, Malloy’s recent attempts to appease teachers have been breathtaking. Then again, he’s got a lot of ground to make up after he said, “Basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years . . . and tenure is yours.”
Cynics aren’t buying it. Malloy-critic-in-chief Jonathan Pelto, a former Democratic state legislator who has aligned himself squarely with the teachers unions, branded the Common Core/evaluation move as a “bizarre political ploy” that happened only because Malloy “removed his blinders and took out his ear plugs long enough to announce that the unfair teacher evaluation system should be delayed until after the election.”
I’m not in the habit of agreeing with Pelto on matters educational, but I think he’s on to something. While I would not characterize Malloy’s teacher sops as “bizarre,” — indeed, they’re entirely rational under the circumstances — they are blatantly political. Malloy says he’s been thinking about taking these actions for months after talking with educators. In the case of cutting pension taxes, he says he’s been contemplating it since 2006. But it would take a gigantic leap of faith to think it’s mere coincidence he made all three of these moves in an election year.
Surprisingly, there is no unanimity in union ranks. Unlike Pelto, CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg insisted that delaying the new teacher evaluations was not political because discussions on this matter involving the governor’s office “have been going on for a long, long time.’’
If so, why did Malloy wait until 2014 to take action? I suppose the answer is simple: because that’s what politicians do. Wait until the most beneficial moment politically to announce any news good or bad. For bad news, use the Friday afternoon news dump. For good news, put on a Superman outfit and place yourself on the starting blocks of your re-election campaign. And if the teachers respond by giving Malloy a headwind, he’ll be tough to stop.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is a former high-school English teacher who was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.