April 30, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:08 pm
THE ARTFUL STRATEGIST

School reform means opening marketplace

As of this writing, Connecticut state government remains supposedly embroiled in agonizing negotiations over "education reform."

Much of this is make-believe, of course, but everyone is having such a good time. There is little that politicians like better than the image of hard-working public servants huddled in earnest chat about important matters of city and state. And journalists play along, with reports on the life-changing changes in the works.

Governor Malloy deserves an award for Magician of the Year; he has taken a wealthy, docile, comfortable, state and manufactured an educational "crisis" that requires all manner of turmoil and change and legislative action to keep us one step removed from being Arkansas or Somalia.

It's odd, though. Drive around to the snobby jurisdictions (of which Connecticut has many and for which the state is best known); the Greenwich-Westport-New Canaan-Avon-Simsbury-Glastonbury empire; the earnest middle-class towns that have average family incomes higher than almost any comparable places in America; the small-town enclaves that revel in their small class sizes; and you have trouble finding angry parents marching in the streets for "education reform."

To be sure, like most other places in the country, the urban nightmare schools are often nightmares, but even there, it is difficult to attribute the problems to any particular idiosyncrasy in Connecticut governance.

At the heart of the soap opera to date has been Governor Malloy's brief little venture into "union-bashing," with a proposal to fuzzy up the teacher tenure law and use other criteria to evaluate (and dismiss) teachers, beyond how many years they remain upright and breathing in the classroom. Malloy is sufficiently in love with his government labor unions; and the Democrats in the General Assembly is sufficiently bought and paid for by teachers' unions; for all sides to know that, at best, the tenure law might be tweaked a bit — but that "job security" was not going to be resting on the slender hope that test scores and a mean little assistant principal were all that stood between lifetime employment and dismissal.

At the core of the Malloy proposals is the never-ending chant to reduce the "achievement gap" between the snobby suburban kids and the urban unwashed masses stuck in hideous city schools. Malloy wasted little time marching to the NAACP to trumpet his proposals to reward failing schools with even more state money; to allow the state to take over "failing" schools; and to increase graduation rates in schools that aren't producing many budding Shakespeare scholars.

The Malloy message: it's a "modern-day Connecticut version…of the civil rights movement."

Slow, down, cowboy. If what you're truly trying to do is offer up a rescue plan to minorities in lousy city schools, then stop fussing with teacher tenure and give the kids and their families a real ticket out-of-town. Another generation of minority students shouldn't have to wait around for more 'reform" that doesn't include the magic of the marketplace.

In Connecticut, as much as anywhere else in the nation, residential decisions are based in large part on school system 'quality"; which in the snobby towns, means one small step removed from prep schools; and in the middle-brow suburbs, often means a credible path to college.

The research and the reality are pretty clear: the best reform for Connecticut schools (most of which are not in need of much of a revolution) is a wide-open, freewheeling, charter school and voucher "choice" program that puts the market's fear-of-God in each and every school — however the teachers are evaluated. Let those minority kids wander their regions, with a voucher in hand. That would be "reform."

Laurence D. Cohen is a freelance writer.

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