by Jennifer Swift
Jul 15, 2014
10:06 AMConnecticut Politics
Connecticut's Gubernatorial Race Will Be Influenced by Education, Teachers
Gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Pelto addresses the audience at the Connecticut Working Families State Forum on June 21 in Wallingford.
For the Democratic party, the full-throttled support of teachers’ unions in Connecticut is a given rule—like “I before E, except after C.” But now, when topics such as Common Core, teacher evaluations, charter schools and the “achievement gap” are added, Gov. Dan Malloy risks becoming that “after C” exception.
Malloy must claw his way to a second term. He is tied with Republican candidate Tom Foley in the most recent (May 9) Quinnipiac University poll of this year’s governor’s race. He barely beat Foley in the 2010 governor’s race, and now faces a challenge from his left flank as former Mansfield state representative Jonathan Pelto is running as a third-party candidate focused almost entirely on the education issue.
The balance could be tipped this year if some of the people who were excited to elect Malloy in 2010 fail to work with as much fervor for him again—or even choose to sit out the election due to his connection to education-reform issues.
Malloy’s relationship with teachers has been occasionally tense and pockmarked with terse exchanges. He’s haunted, for example, by a comment he made to the General Assembly in February 2012. Advocating for tenure reform, Malloy said for teachers to earn tenure, “the only thing you have to do is show up for four years.”
Before that, Malloy appointed Stefan Pryor as the state education commissioner. Pryor, a cofounder of Amistad Academy charter school, has taken heat from teachers’ unions which point out that he has never worked in a capacity as a teacher and lacks teaching credentials. Malloy, like many governors, initially supported all aspects of the federal Common Core public education standards and new teacher evaluation systems based on them. He has since softened his stance on these issues as it became clear that he might lose reelection without the support of teachers. Malloy also supported the installation of known urban-education reformer Paul Vallas as Bridgeport’s superintendent, and then the re-installation of Vallas after a judge’s initial ruling that he did not meet the criteria to be superintendent. Malloy’s backing of Vallas created further friction with the unions. Vallas has since left the district to run for lieutenant governor of Illinois.
The governor’s pivoting is obvious to educators.
“He’s sort of pulled back toward the middle—he was very much toward the side,” says Fran Rabinowitz, the interim superintendent of Bridgeport public schools.
In addition to delaying certain aspects of Common Core, Malloy has sought to give teachers a tax break on their pensions and has maintained state funding for local public schools.
“We do have a respect for each other,” says Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), the state’s biggest teachers’ union. “His door is open to us, and over this past year we’ve been able to iron out some of the legislation that may have been well-intentioned and implemented badly.”
Malloy says the state is making progress in education, something teachers appreciate.
“I think that the teachers are very bright people and very hard working people, and are happy that graduation rates are going up four years in a row, and we have (sent) hundreds of millions of dollars to districts, in effect preventing wholesale or large-scale layoffs of individuals. We’ve done things very differently than in other states,” he says. “Nobody wants the teachers to do better than the teachers, so we’ve been trying to find the right match of services, of training. We’re doing so much more than other states but sometimes that doesn’t get out over the roar … of those who don’t, for whatever reason, support it.”
Teachers may be happy with some of his changes—the American Federation of Teachers overlooked his tenure comments and endorsed him for governor in June—but it doesn’t mean they aren’t still concerned. During a speech before AFL-CIO in June, AFT President Randi Weingarten offered praise for Pelto’s opposition to charter schools. The union leader called the governor’s race a two-person contest between Foley and Malloy. She is choosing Malloy, despite his spotty record with teachers, over Foley, who she believes would be hostile toward organized labor.
Malloy’s policies and comments have sowed some seeds of opposition among the ranks of the 43,000-member CEA.
“When teachers think they aren’t being heard, there is going to be frustration, anger, there is going to be anxiety, and frankly, maybe, a lack of a cast of a vote,” says CEA President Sheila Cohen. “They’ll probably go to the polls, the question is who will they vote for? There are a lot of people on that ballot, and (some teachers) could skip a line.”
Malloy’s missteps with teachers offer a natural voter base to Pelto, a liberal firebrand who doesn’t mince words when it comes to characterizing the governor’s positions on education reform.
Speaking of teachers, Pelto says, “Malloy signed up 100 percent for them and with them, but I think he’s on the verge of losing that. The education issue very well could be the deciding factor.”
On his blog Wait What? and in interviews, Pelto has said Malloy is committed to the “corporate education reform agenda” and criticized the governor for his support in the expansion of charter schools in the state. “We’re not Chicago, Philadelphia,” he said, pointing to places where charter schools have an established foothold. “But there’s something going on in Connecticut that is very different than anything we’ve ever experienced.
Pelto is teaming up with lieutenant governor candidate Ebony Murphy, a former charter school teacher who has also been a critic of education reform efforts in Connecticut.
Tom Foley, who has to get past Senate Minority Leader John McKinney in an Aug. 12 Republican primary if he is to have a re-match with Malloy in November, sees opportunity in the fracturing.
Before announcing a second run for governor, Foley created the Connecticut Policy Institute (CPI), a think tank aimed at examining issues including education. It hosted a forum on education policy and a college night for families and residents in Bridgeport. Foley says CPI is not an arm of his campaign, though he might end up embracing some of its proposed solutions on the campaign trail.
Still, Foley and the Republicans’ education policies won’t win much favor with teachers. Foley supports loosening regulations on charter schools to allow more to open in the state, and dismisses concerns about the relationship between some charter schools that are backed by hedge funds. Foley’s “follow-the-money” funding plan, whereby state funding follows a student to a school of his or her choice within the district, has been criticized by CEA as a fundamental threat to public education.
But with Pelto in the race as a strong critic of the Malloy administration’s education reform tactics, Foley doesn’t need the support of teachers’ unions to benefit from their dissatisfaction with the governor.
As Malloy courts the support of traditional parts of his political base, including the teachers’ unions and Connecticut’s Working Families Party, whose members have also strongly criticized education reform, he will have to choose whether to further distance himself from organizations such as Families for Excellent Schools (FES), which made a name for itself in New York City when it ran a slick advertising campaign attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio’s opposition to charters. It has been very active in Bridgeport’s education battles.
“We expect at some point to make an endorsement—we’re checking in with members constantly. For now, there’s no question Governor Malloy has been a tremendous advocate for kids and families, and I believe our members recognize that,“ FES cofounder and CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said in a statement.
But that kind of endorsement could do more harm than good for Malloy’s reelection hopes if it risks driving teachers’ union members to Pelto.
FES backed Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch’s controversial referendum to change the governance of the Bridgeport school board. It was a move opposed by the Working Families Party and Pelto.
In 2010, Malloy did not win enough votes on the Democratic Party line alone—but combined with the votes he took as the Working Family Party’s cross-endorsed candidate, he narrowly beat Foley.
The Working Families endorsement has yet to be determined, but the party has openly expressed nervousness about Malloy’s positions on charter schools. “We have been pretty concerned ourselves with the governor’s education agenda,” said Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Working Families Party.
Enxhi Myslymi contributed to this story.
Editor's note: The original version of this story referenced an older Quinnipiac University poll showing Malloy trailing Foley in the governor's race. We have corrected the story to reflect the data from the most recent poll.
Connecticut's Gubernatorial Race Will Be Influenced by Education, Teachers