Wednesday, January 04, 2006

There's a Republican in my Soup

Since the retirement of the last Democrat governor, William O’Neill, aspiring Republican governors have not had inspiring role models. Former senator and governor Lowell Weicker should be considered a Republican, though he won office as an independent, since Weicker spent most of his political life toiling in Republican Party vineyards. Weicker, who likes to consider himself a Jacob Javitts moderate Republican, was a liberal perpetually at war with his surrounding environment.

Former Governor John Rowland entered his first term in office waving an “axe the tax” banner and at first seemed to harbor troublesome conservative tendencies, assuming one was willing to give heed to his broken campaign pledges. Wiser heads in Connecticut now advise caution in the matter of campaign promises – most especially when the candidate is a Republican. The transformation of putative conservative Republicans into raging bull liberals, once the frauds have attained office, occurs at the sped of light because, some have argued, there is no conservative support structure in the state. It does not pay to be a one term conservative officeholder when operating in a state that will hand you your head on a platter if you persist in arousing those who jealously guard the status quo.

Governor Jodi Rell, a moderate Republican, is refreshingly free of pretence. To vary a phrase of the Englishman who said to Thomas Carlyle, “Sir, I was born an Englishman, have lived as an Englishman and will die an Englishman,” Rell was born a Republican moderate, will live as a Republican moderate and will die a Republican moderate. Carlyle’s response to the patriotic Englishman rolls with a belly laugh down the ages: “Mon,” said Carlyle, “Have’ye no imagination?”

Imagination is the midwife of change, and change, once the child has grown up, can be a terror to the old guard. There are two kinds of changes: quantitative and qualitative. The guardians of the status quo, convinced that there can never be too much of what they consider to be a good thing, fear only qualitative changes. They will not resist, for example, higher pay for teachers, smaller classes or longer school days, because quantitative changes of this kind do not threaten to upset prevailing arrangements, even though the condition of education in urban public schools is by anyone’s measure an utter failure. But propose a qualitative change that may lift urban students out of the dark ages of public school education, and the old guard will pull the roof down about your head.

The Amistad Academy in New Haven, whose student population is 97 percent black and Hispanic, is one of the highest-performing middle schools in the state. The school’s pedagogical approach, modeled on a Knowledge Is Power Program, is grounded in an operative system of rewards and punishments that focuses the attention of its students on academic performance. Dress standards, pledges of attendance and the completion of homework assignments are written into contracts signed by teachers and parents. Essential core values -- respect and hard work -- are rigorously enforced. Admission to the school is by lottery and the curriculum is not dumbed down.

Last May, the Washington Post noted that in 2003, “81 percent of Amistad eighth-graders achieved ‘mastery’ in reading on the state test, compared with 31 percent of students in New Haven and 67 percent statewide. Two years earlier, in sixth grade, the same students had lagged behind their statewide counterparts by 38 percent to 64 percent.” It’s all been uphill since then.

In an undistorted market place, the undisputed success of The Amistad Academy would be replicated in every urban public school system in Connecticut, and schools that didn’t shape up would be out of business. Gradually, patterning themselves on successful pedagogical models, urban school systems would no longer abandon whole generations of school children to failure and despair.

This will not happen because the undertow of inertia is too powerful. Provided the successes of The Amistad Academy can be contained and limited, the state’s public education behemoth need not worry that its failures will inspire political concern. Political concern, -- the frank recognition that there is a problem, married with imagination and the will power to confront and overcome entrenched special interests -- occasionally lead to the implementation of practical solutions; but not here in Connecticut, which studies problems to death and soldiers on maintaining the status quo. Far from being a solution to the problem, moderate Republicans are part of the problem.

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