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Education reform is long overdue

In the 1970s, I produced a television documentary about graduates of Connecticut public schools going to college unable to read and write competently and do basic math.

What I remember most was a UConn economics professor who stopped giving essay tests and used multiple choice questions instead because the essays were so painful to read.

That was a long time ago and nothing much happened in the intervening years to make the problem go away. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the Malloy administration looking to make long overdue education reform a high priority this year.

With the state’s financial position still precarious despite tax increases and budget cuts and an election year in the background, the governor and his allies are taking on a lot.

Having a majority of Democrats in the General Assembly is normally an advantage for Democratic governors in such situations, but the legislators, if not Malloy himself, must contend with the perils of angering a major ally, the unions representing state employees and public school teachers.

So far, after seeing what’s going on in other states where parents have finally noticed their children do not always learn, the Connecticut unions representing teachers are making nice. They have said they’re all for teacher evaluations, though evaluations shouldn’t be “all about test scores.” Now, test scores, though imperfect, would seem to be a major way to determine if a teacher is teaching and therefore have to be given considerable weight.

What happens to tenure should also be interesting. School superintendents, almost all of them former teachers, have called for its end and that’s a good beginning.

And there’s been a lot of talk about a commercial run during the last Giants’ playoff game in which unionized teachers made the incredible announcement that “it’s time to end teacher tenure as we know it.”

If only they meant it.

Unfortunately, the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association, hopes to get away with mending tenure, not ending it.

Teachers get tenure, which is another way of saying a job for life, after four years. Firing a tenured teacher, except for the most grievous offense, is next to impossible. It begins with a four-month hearing process, followed by a determination by a three member arbitration panel.

Should a school board succeed in firing a bad teacher after all this, the teacher can go to court for a long appeals process that school systems often find too costly to pursue.

In order to save tenure, the CEA is proposing a reduction in the hearing procedure from 120 to 85 days and the reduction of the arbitration panel to a single arbitrator. Tenure would stay in place. I guess that technically ends tenure as we know it.

It’s difficult to understand why teachers need both the protection of tenure and union membership. It’s like the old farmers who wore suspenders and a belt just to be secure.

Unions, including those representing teachers, recognize they have a responsibility to vigorously defend any and all members, regardless of how justified a union member’s dismissal may be. So why do teachers need the protection of tenure when they have their unions to defend them?

As to Democratic legislators and their fear of union retribution at election time, we can only recommend they look to the nation’s top Democrat for inspiration.In Monday’s State of the Union address, the president, who’s also up for re-election, said the nation’s schools must “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” You can’t do that and keep tenure.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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