Two education initiatives caught my eye recently. The first, a bill that would require the state education commissioner to have significant classroom and school administrative experience, has cleared the House and is headed to the Senate. I’m trying hard to feel reassured but for some reason that’s not happening.
The bill strikes me as an overreaction to the appointment of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s first commissioner, Stefan Pryor, who was not an educator but a reformer of the system who had co-founded Amistad Academy, a charter school in New Haven.
The state’s education establishment distrusted Pryor from the beginning. For one thing, he did not come from the typical background one would expect of an education leader or bureaucrat. Pryor doesn’t have a doctorate in education; he has both undergraduate and law degrees from Yale. He also took the lead on the proposed changes in the state’s teacher tenure system.
Pryor has a background in economic development and politics, having served as deputy mayor in Newark, N.J., Pryor also served on the New Haven Board of Aldermen and was a policy analyst on youth and education issues for Mayor John DeStefano.
As a teacher for 12 years myself, I can tell you that teachers and administrators often take a dim view of leaders who don’t share their backgrounds. And if someone was brought in to lead my school or district without substantial experience in education, I too would be highly skeptical.
In the Pryor case, the education establishment is launching a preemptive strike. As state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, was quick to point out, Connecticut is one of only four states that don’t insist on minimum qualifications for the post of education commissioner. And we do have such benchmarks for the posts of attorney general and commissioner of public health, for example. But the attorney general does have to practice law — at least on occasion — and the health commissioner must make medical decisions in a public health crisis.
The education commissioner, on the other hand, is basically a manager whose job it is to carry out the policies of his boss, the governor. Does the commissioner need to have been a science teacher or a building principal to do that? As teachers are fond of saying, education is more art than science.
I suspect what’s really going on is the Connecticut Education Association and its allies in the General Assembly want to make sure future education commissioners come from a standard education-establishment background. That way, a new commissioner will be less likely to work with Malloy to shake up the system and make their lives miserable. And Malloy has fallen in line. Even before signing the bill into law, he appointed Dianna R. Wentzell, who has been an educator in Connecticut for 25 years, to succeed Pryor.
And then there is the case of presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who planned to introduce legislation this week to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.
Sanders’ proposal is far broader than President Obama’s, which proposes to make only the nation’s community colleges free. Sanders wants the federal government to dramatically increase aid to public colleges so that at least the first two years would be tuition-free.
Sanders rightly laments the extent to which so many students leave with not only diplomas but mountains of debt. But he has said nothing about the administrative bloat that has caused tuitions to rise to the point of absurdity. Perhaps his reluctance to broach the subject stems from the fact that his wife is a former president of a college in Vermont that is near bankruptcy and in danger of losing its accreditation.
Be that as it may, in the unlikely event that Sanders’ proposal becomes reality, it will be a joy to watch the federal government itself grapple with skyrocketing tuitions and fees at America’s colleges, which since 1986 have risen nationally at two-and-a-half times the rate of inflation.
Come to think of it, maybe Sanders’ legislation would help contain those costs. The federal government would never tolerate what we run-of-the-mill consumers have to put up with. No way.
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