For the past few decades, we often talk about who the latest “education governor” is, particularly among Democrats. In the late 1980s, Bill Clinton of Arkansas tried to take the mantle from the esteemed Jim Hunt of North Carolina. For a bit, it shifted over to Gaston Caperton of West Virginia, as he emerged from a devastating state-wide teachers strike. And most recently, it was Virginia’s Mark Warner, who ushered in the 21st century in the Old Dominion by focusing on high school reform.
But recent history points primarily to Republicans as the “education governors.” Lamar Alexander in Tennessee. George W. Bush in Texas. Jeb Bush in Florida. Mitch Daniels in Indiana. Republicans seem to have the upper hand when it comes to conditions for pushing forward with reforms. And while many may question the final outcomes, it is those Republican state leaders, be they in red or purple states, that stand as leaders in education.
This week, we may have seen the start of a major shift in the “education governor” formula. A true-blue Democrat, in one of the truest of blue states boldly laying out an ambitious set of priorities for education reform. The leader? Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut.
Governor Malloy was sworn into office this past January, elected in a 2010 cycle that wasn’t particularly friendly to Democrats. Much of his first year has been spent focused on natural disasters and an unmanageable budget. He addressed the latter in the most unusual of ways for a governor — he both cut spending and raised taxes. Connecticut is now looking at a potential budget surplus for the year, and that’s following some significant investment in economic strength and jobs creation in the Nutmeg State.
Through it all, Malloy pledged that 2012 would be the “year of education reform.” He recognized the important that strong public schools played in strengthening the state’s economy. He knew he couldn’t give it the full attention it needed in year one of his administration. But in year two, it would be game on.
Yesterday, Malloy threw that first pitch of that ed reform game in Connecticut. In a bold pronouncement to the state’s legislative leaders, Malloy offered six key principles that would guide the 2012 legislative session. He urged leaders to act on these six issues — six topics that are intertwined and interconnected to ensure progress. And he tasked his new Education Commissioner with presenting specific proposals in the next month or so to address these themes.
So what is Connecticut’s new education agenda?
1) Enhance families’ access to high-quality early childhood opportunities
2) Authorize the intensive interventions and enable the supports necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and districts
3) Expand the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters, and others
4) Unleash innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success, especially in high-performing schools and districts
5) Ensure that our schools are home to the very best teachers and principals — working within a fair system that values their skill and effectiveness over seniority and tenure.
6) Deliver more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need — provided that they embrace key reforms that position our students for success.
Expanding school choice. Removing red tape. Valuing educator effectiveness over years on the job. Focusing resources on the students who need them the most. This is not a status quo agenda from a typical Democratic politician. This is the start of an audacious plan focused on actually improving public education for all students, whatever it takes. These principles can serve as the very model for how a post-NCLB governor of a blue state can take real action steps that get to the heart of what ails our public schools.
Obviously, the devil is in the details. Connecticut must now look to its State Department of Education to offer up specific policy proposals that ensure effective teachers and principals for all students. The SDE must move forward ideas on how to fix a school funding formula that has been broken for decades. And it must do all of this under the reality that there may not be buckets of new money to spend, and we need to expand choice and provide more direct interventions simply by spending existing dollars better than we have in past years.
While Connecticut is still a long ways from solving its achievement gap crisis and ensuring that all students have access to great public schools, Malloy’s announcement is an important step forward for Connecticut’s students, schools, and the state as a whole. He has signaled that a Democratic governor in a strong union state can get serious about statewide education reform. And he has done it in a way that builds on what we have learned from similar efforts in other states, building on the successes and hopefully avoiding the pitfalls.
Yes, Connecticut, we can have an ed reform governor with a real ed reform agenda.