By Rick Green

Published by Hartford Courant, December 10, 2010

Reformer needed to address state’s school issues

The most critical selection Gov.-elect Dan Malloy will make for his administration will be the toughest.

Connecticut’s next commissioner of education must make bold changes while also placating powerful teacher unions and their political supporters.

The difficult questions facing Connecticut — how will municipalities pay for education, where will our future workforce come from, is it possible to shrink the worst-in-the-nation achievement gap between white and minority students? — are wrapped up in our public schools.

For this job, the safe choice might be the wrong choice.

Connecticut has long been an education leader, but in recent years progress has slipped as other states have innovated. For evidence, look no further than Connecticut’s miserable failure to win new federal money under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which funds creative school reform.

Liberal Democrats and school district administrators actually complained that Race to the Top was unfair because it was a competition. It’s good to hear that Malloy is a supporter of the signature Obama program.

Malloy and his commissioner will be tested immediately, because the governor will have to choose between balancing the budget and making cuts that will harm public education. It’s hard to envision how there will be any money left for new initiatives, from preschool to charter schools to choice.

The lesson from throughout the country is that Malloy must make education his highest priority for real change to come. The future governor says he will hold a national search for his top education official, signaling that he intends to push an aggressive agenda.

Based on conversations with education leaders throughout the state, here is my seat-of-the-pants (and totally incomplete) rundown on potential candidates:

Ramani Ayer: The retired CEO of The Hartford, an ardent supporter of urban education, would bring a big-picture, systems approach to the job. He won positive marks for his work on a recent education commmission, but has said he doesn’t want the job.

Steve Adamowski: The departing Hartford superintendent is popular among school reformers for his sharp focus on student achievement. However, he’s had a tumultuous tenure and powerful teacher unions would oppose him.

Cam Staples: The popular soon-to-be former state legislator from New Haven could be the bridge between unions and reform groups that Malloy would need to get changes approved by the General Assembly.

Mark McQuillan: The current education commissioner says he wants to stay in the job and union leaders would probably support him. McQuillan is a steady hand and experienced educator, but some question his suitability to lead an aggressive school reform agenda.

Kevin Sullivan: A former president of the state Senate long-interested in education issues, Sullivan now heads the Children’s Museum of Connecticut and is a popular Democrat.

Deborah Gist: The young Rhode Island commissioner of education is a hot commodity among reformers for her efforts to reward teachers and principals and raise standards. Remember the high school that fired all its teachers? Gist was behind that.

Garth Harries: The assistant superintendent in New Haven in charge of reform and a former New York City administrator has won acclaim for his work on the city’s new teacher contract and other initiatives. He is largely unknown outside of New Haven.

Michelle Rhee: The former Washington, D.C., superintendent is now launching her own school reform group. There is no reason to think this lightning rod wants to come to Connecticut. She would be unacceptable to unions.

Top officials in Louisiana, Indiana, Delaware, Virginia, Florida and Tennessee: The new governor’s transition team might want to look for talent in these states that have won acclaim for improvements to public education.

Dan Malloy: I’m kidding, but not completely. The next commissioner of education must be both an arm-twisting insider and impatient agitator.

That sounds a lot like Dan Malloy to me.