Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pelto Introduces A Wrinkle



Were it not for Working Families Party votes in the 2010 gubernatorial election, Tom Foley might be governor today. This would have been a calamity, according to Malloyalists. “If you think our education policy is tough, just imagine what it would be like under Governor Foley,” writes Lennie Grimaldi on his widely read blog “Only In Bridgeport,” citing Malloy supporters.

 “Tom Foley,” Mr. Grimaldi reminds us, “received more votes for governor on the Republican line than Dan Malloy received on the Democratic line. The 20,000-vote difference was the Connecticut Working Families Party line where Malloy’s name also appeared for an extra 26,308 votes.”

The Working Families Party is the political arm of Connecticut’s powerful state employee unions, most especially teachers’ unions, and they deliver votes, campaign contributions and boots on the ground to Connecticut’s progressives. Progressive candidates such as Governor Dannel Malloy, once in office, are expected to show their appreciation by endorsing policies that benefit union workers.

So far, Mr. Malloy’ policies – particularly his budgets – have favored union workers and earned the plaudits of Connecticut’s Working Families Party. But the reformist instinct runs like a volcanic stream of lava in the veins of most progressives; and so, early into his first term, Mr. Malloy got it into his head that educational reforms were necessary. In Connecticut’s urban-scape, public schools had been faltering for decades. The governor’s contemplated reforms involved dispensing rewards for good teachers, a form of merit pay, and dismissing teachers who just weren’t cutting it.

Mr. Malloy immediately was forced to confront a series of practical difficulties. Given Connecticut’s elaborate union-made dismissal system, how do you construct a side-by-side process that would pass legal challenges? Answer: You have to show that the dismissed teacher is incompetent to teach. And how do you do that?  Answer: You tie teacher performance to student performance as measured by state-wide standardized tests. Without an objective means of measuring teacher performance, dismissals easily might be challenged as subjective. In a system in which both administrators and workers are unionized, the hiring and firing is done by unions through administrators, straw men immobilized by legislators and governors, like Mr. Malloy, whose futures are bound up with union interests.

Mr. Pelto is the voice of union interests in the battle against Common Core, an imperfect attempt to objectify student and teacher performance. He is nothing if not persistent.

The pitched battle against Common Core has brought together strange political bedfellows.  Common Core is opposed on the right by conservatives and libertarians who subscribe to the principle of subsidiary, which holds that important educational decisions should be made by the smallest unit affected by the decision. Education is a local affair; therefore, hiring and firing decisions should be made by school administrators, principals and superintendents of schools, a once simple process made needlessly complex by legislators who truckle to union leaders -- such as Mr. Malloy, who may be found marching on picket lines with striking union workers.

In pursuit of their ideal social arrangement, the Conservative/Libertarians sometimes blow the dust off President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 letter to Luther C. Stewart, then President of the National Federation of Federal Employees, and shout from the rooftops Mr. Roosevelt’s sentiments on the proper relationship between unions and government:
“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.
 “Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that ‘under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government.’"
It is needless to point out here that a progressive Roosevelt holding such views would be exceedingly reluctant to appear on picket lines; still less would he uphold the putative “right” of unionized workers to “prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied.”

But these hobgobblins do not haunt Mr. Pelto, whose immediate concern is to hasten a return to the mutually beneficial and unreformed status quo ante that prevailed between Connecticut’s progressive Democrats and teacher unions before Mr. Malloy was afflicted by the notion that he could not in good conscience allow the continuing deterioration of urban school systems.

To advance this end, progressive Democrats in the General Assembly, in concert with teachers’ unions, have proposed to “diminish the weight of the state's standardized test scores as a component of the new teacher evaluation system,” according to a story in the Hartford Courant. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test is a replacement for Connecticut’s Mastery Test now being applied in 90 percent of Connecticut’s districts. Faced by increasing criticism from the left – i.e. Mr. Pelto and the Working Families Party -- Mr. Malloy has applied for a waiver to exclude the Smarter Balance test scores for a year, and Mr. Pelto has given indications that he might challenge Mr. Malloy in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

Mr. Malloy’s left flank is pushing him ever further to the left, and the right has lent a shoulder to the effort. Rather than confront his importunate and increasingly well-organized opponents on his left, Mr. Malloy has chosen to raise aloft his spook stick: “If you think our education policy is tough, just imagine what it would be like under Governor Foley.”

At some point – hopefully for Mr. Malloy on the other side of the upcoming election – reality will overcome the imaginings: Urban education is a wreck, no one is fixing it, and Mr. Malloy’s noble reform venture will be written off as necessary campaign collateral damage. Republicans, as usual, will survey the urban mess and pronounce it unfixable.

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