How Connecticut Educators Beat Back Privateers to Lead Reform Effort

Proponents of privatizing public education have spent the past few years on a perpetual road show, travelling state to state selling a toxic mix of education reforms that are unsupported by research and silence the voices of teachers, and rebutting any and all efforts to improve public education. They flood the airwaves with apocalyptic-sounding advertisements and even assemble phony grassroots groups to give the impression of public support.

But this spring, the tired act was booed off the stage in Connecticut. The Connecticut Education Association (CEA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, worked to rally educators and parents to expose the privatization agenda behind a series of proposed reforms, and to help craft meaningful, teacher-led reforms that work for all students.

Trouble began brewing this year when a New York-based private equity firm and Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization began advancing a series of reforms that would expand for-profit charter schools—despite research showing that their students tend to perform worse academically than those in neighborhood public schools—and would silence the voices of educators and weaken their job security.

Rhee, a former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, has spent the past several months working with extreme right-wing groups and legislators to advance an agenda that puts private profits ahead of children. Her Students First group spent $790,000 on advertising in Connecticut to try to advance her unproven—and, in many cases, thoroughly disproven—reforms.

The state’s educators quickly found themselves “being told by wealthy and powerful interests—from CEOs to charter management companies to out-of-state, ultraconservative, anti-union organizations— that their voices should not count,” said Phil Apruzzese, a math and science teacher from Wethersfield, Connecticut, and president of the CEA.

CEA and its members were not exactly rookies to the education reform debate, and they were not about to be steamrolled by outside money and interests. In fact, Connecticut educators have spent years leading reform in the Constitution State.

CEA was a driving force behind the establishment of CommPACT schools—eight inner-city schools that have a team of teachers, principals, and parents with new powers and flexibility to transform their schools from within. The union also offered “View from the Classroom: Proven Ideas for Student Achievement,” a series of research-backed, teacher-led reforms that could improve education for all Connecticut students.

Claudia Emilaire, whose son is a third grader at Barnum School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has seen up close and personal the difference the CommPACT program can make.

“We have a lot of positive things happening in this school,” she said. “When I look around, in every corner, I see someone helping a child.”

CEA and its members worked through various media outlets to educate the public about the right way to improve the state’s public schools, and CEA member-activists were a constant presence at the state capitol, making sure their voices were heard and stressing to legislators and Gov. Dannel Malloy the importance of getting reform right.

More than 100 people, about half of them public school teachers, packed a state legislative hearing room in February to testify on questionable and potentially harmful proposals in Gov. Malloy’s initial education agenda.

CEA and its members worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle to advance a bipartisan reform bill that raised education standards, honored collective bargaining, and took a collaborative approach to addressing critical issues of quality in schools. Thousands of CEA members turned out at an April rally designed to keep the bill moving through the legislative process and to encourage Gov. Malloy to sign it.

On May 15, Malloy signed the CEA-supported bill that included investments in proven reforms, such as quality early childhood education, early literacy, and health and social supports for disadvantaged students. The legislation uses research-based approaches to improving teacher quality, and allows reforms to be piloted and assessed in a handful of schools districts before they are rolled out statewide. Stripped from the bill, among other things, was language that would have expanded the number of for-profit charter schools operated by national corporations.

“The key takeaway today is that parents and educators know what is best for their students,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Most importantly, educators had a seat at the table in shaping policy and their expertise was essential in leading to decisions that will benefit students and schools. Connecticut students won, because elected officials listened to the experts–Connecticut parents and educators.”

For more information about  educator activist campaigns, visit NEA Education Votes