This week, Betsy DeVos, despite her terrifying ignorance of the fact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law that it will be her job to enforce, was confirmed as Secretary of Education thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Mike Pence.
Anti-DeVos calls jammed Senate phone lines. Two Republican senators who crossed party lines to vote against confirmation, Sens. Lisa Murkowski R-Alaska and Susan Collins, R-Maine, both said they did so because of pressure from constituents. But for the rest of the Republican senators responsible for DeVos’ confirmation, her political donations spoke more loudly than the voices of their constituents.
As award-winning author and National Board Certified teacher Kate Messner put it: “Today should be remembered as the day 50 Republican Senators and the VP chose money & politics over children.”
Newbery Honor-winning author Cynthia Lord, a former elementary and middle teacher who visits 50 schools a year in addition to writing novels, observed: “The Senate has betrayed our nation’s children and teachers.”
This national conversation on education takes place as we are facing difficult decisions on education and how it’s funded here in Connecticut. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s new proposals, announced on Wednesday, once again throw town budgets and long-term capital plans into chaos and will inevitably make the lives of families with special needs children even harder. Speaking as a mother, an education advocate, and as a member of the legislature in a town where Malloy intends to cut special education funding to zero, I’m waiting for more details, but am concerned that once again, the governor is making a proposal that is both educationally and politically untenable, for reasons that are unclear.
Greenwich Board of Education Chair Peter Sherr shares my concerns. “I wish he would just get all this out at once,” Sherr told me. “What he’s doing, and I don’t think he understands the damage … is dropping these things in pieces like little bombs into neighborhoods … the hits keep coming. It’s hard to make policy decisions while this is going on. No one can figure out which way is up. It’s just not cogent.”
As a member of the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting who has sat through lengthy deliberations on the New Lebanon school project and watched our school board working with the state Department of Education and jumping through all of Hartford’s hoops for the last two years, it was beyond frustrating to have Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Ben Barnes announce (by way of a Saturday afternoon memo at the 11th hour) that he was recommending the legislature’s School Construction Committee remove the project from funding consideration. It has apparently passed through that committee nonetheless, and what happens remains to be seen.
I sat through our First Selectman’s and Board of Education budget presentations less than two weeks ago. At the time, they were within budget guidelines. Now, thanks to the bombs from Hartford, both the budgetary and political ramifications will be profound.
“The risk of dropping a giant pension bill out of the blue because of years and years of fiscal mismanagement in Hartford — I don’t know if he cares, but what Governor Malloy doesn’t understand is the reaction of the community might well be to undermine public education because it will be forced to cut.” Sherr said. “The effect is going to be further disengagement from Hartford, and it’s going to undermine the thing he is allegedly trying to champion, which is strong public schools.”
Gov. Malloy made a point of singling out Greenwich in his budget address. He might want to remember that this town of 61,000 people provides 10 percent of Hartford’s tax revenue. Perhaps a little courtesy and stability from Hartford so that we can plan our affairs like adults might be order?
I’m sure there are many other communities around the state who feel exactly the same way we do.
From the conversations I’ve had, the bull in the china shop approach, which unfortunately tends to be Gov. Malloy’s trademark, might not be the most effective method for dealing with a major restructuring of education funding.
He might want to read the recent piece by former ConnCAN CEO Patrick Riccards, which gives advice to education reformers on how they need to reform themselves. I reached out to Riccards after I read it, because his advice was so different from my experience with ConnCAN on the ground in Connecticut. We had an interesting, productive conversation.
One thing that Riccards said really stuck with me, because it’s so reflective of the zero sum game thinking that we see all too often in politics:
“Edreform is all about the win. Originally it was “how do we win in a legislative setting?” In recent years it’s become “how do we win in a litigation setting?” What many people fail to recognize is that after the win, you need a coalition of the willing to implement it and ensure its long-term success.”
In the last few years, we’ve seen many costly unfunded mandates come from Hartford — for example, requiring that we replace a perfectly good teacher evaluation system with one more to their liking, and Hartford’s evaluation system required additional administrators to implement, diverting more money away from classrooms. Perhaps the governor should do less bomb dropping and more discussing and compromising.
“If the governor wants to have a serious conversation, if he wants to follow a principle-driven policy about … moving to local funding, but also local control, then that’s a positive policy conversation to have,” Sherr said.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU (and as such is an AAUP member), and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.
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