For a long, long while it was touch and go. In most businesses – and public education is one of the state’s biggest Big Businesses -- the free market acts as a check on inferior products and services. If the widget or service produced by business A does not perform up to expectations, the purchaser will turn to A’s competitor, business B, and in due course business A will either be driven from the field or improve its product or service. This process, which insures improvement, does not apply to public education – a state monopoly that draws its financing from tax receipts. Only a governor or a legislature can deny public funds to inferior schools, and doing so – if you are a Democrat reliant on state employee unions for sustenance -- is a hazardous business.
Mr. Malloy, full of spit and vinegar during his first term, made the attempt, possibly because he felt an emotional kinship with students in cities, most of them young African Americans and Hispanics who for years have been at the receiving end of an improvement-resistant education. Mr. Malloy has often said he suffered from a disability as a young boy and was thought to be less intelligent than his comrades. Because of a loving mother and some brilliant teachers, he was able later in life to excel. Franklin Roosevelt had a wheel chair; Mr. Malloy had severe dyslexia, a condition that left him unable to read, spell, do math problems, or even tie his shoes and button his clothes. He also understood, perhaps better than most, the importance of pre-college education, the bootstraps used by the poor and the wretched of the earth to pull themselves up when life presses their faces in the dirt. Every man brings his background with him into the future, carrying his shattered past – oddly enough, lovingly – the way Aeneas carried his father on his back from burning Troy.
Just how retrograde is public education in urban Connecticut and rust-belt towns?
Managing Editor of the Journal Inquirer Chris Powell has written often and lucidly on the subject over the years. In the state’s larger cities, public education is a wasteland. There one finds a downdraft that pulls everything under: curricula are degraded; educational standards are reduced; non-performing teachers are dusted off and kept on through union power and unbreakable contracts alone; students are passed from grade to grade without having mastered necessary skills. Worst of all, these reverses have become the new normal. Stripped of even a modicum of power and responsibility, superintendents and principals are unable to save the children from years – no, decades – of time served in inferior schools. Instead they are dumped, holding in their fists pass-through diplomas many of them cannot read, on wicked streets full of barbarians who despoil them. This is burning Troy. And here, in this wasteland, fathers do not carry children on their backs; children grown straight and strong do not carry fathers on their backs -- because the children are fatherless, the state rewards out-of- wedlock childbearing, and mothers know in their grieving hearts that they and their children will be heirs to the whirlwind.
Mr. Malloy kicked against these pricks; he fought the good fight – and lost. Still, after decades of legislative induced failure, slick politicians are even now permitted to fool themselves and others that Troy is not burning. Mr. Malloy was not one of them.
Ironically, charter schools in Hartford, Connecticut’s Capitol City, offer some competition to failing public schools. Elsewhere in the state, successful charter schools are underfunded by about 17 percent relative to public schools, a state financing feature hardwired into the statutes that created them. The Catholic Church has recently closed its last parochial school in Hartford; no more competition there. Charter schools have a strong presence in Hartford because of a judicial ruling concerning unconstitutional segregation. Hartford’s charter schools were supposed to provide a means of integrating segregated schools. The court that passed down its ruling in Sheff v. O’Neill has determined improbably that a school system is "integrated" when its white population exceeds 25 percent. Along the way to an integrated utopia, parents in Hartford discovered that the charter schools were providing a superior education and, as often happens in a free market rich in choices, parents began, much to the dismay of teacher union heads, to demand entree, forbidden in a great many cases because the addition of non-white students to a precariously integrated public school system would upset the court-ordered apple cart.
The same embattled union heads who fought Mr. Malloy to a successful finish on linking student performance to teachers’ evaluations – the only way to produce data according to which the effectiveness of individual teachers may be measured – no doubt are hard at work torpedoing the superior charter school competition. Mr. Malloy stood in their way during much of his two terms in office shouting “Stop!” In 20 months, he will be gone, but his valiant attempt to save urban children from an inferior education may be regarded as his finest hour.