Doing no harm would be a start
Twelve years after he made national news, eight years after he looked to be finished and six years after he was last heard from, Ned Lamont has finally taken office in Connecticut.
A lot has changed in that time. In 2006, Lamont became famous for taking on and beating a long-serving senator in a primary, which almost never happens. The win didn’t take, and we all got introduced to the short-lived Connecticut for Lieberman Party.
In 2010, Lamont was the favorite going into the Democrat primary for governor against Dannel Malloy, but that didn’t go so well, either. Malloy won the primary easily and squeaked into office that November. With Democrats holding every statewide office, Lamont’s chances of getting anywhere seemed slim.
Then in Malloy’s first term he popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, with a sharply written opinion piece aimed at pushing through the governor’s controversial school reform package.
“Automatic tenure for K-12 is so over,” Lamont wrote, sounding more like an aggrieved eighthgrader than a future governor. “Like most of us, teachers must continue to show that they still are on their game.”
That sentiment makes some sense, but he paired it by coming out strongly in favor of charter schools, and even included a plug for the movie Waiting for Superman, a feature-length charterschool commercial.
That was then. Besides the war in Iraq and the end of Joe Lieberman’s political career, one of many things that seems to have changed since Lamont got back into politics is his view of education reform.
In a recent interview with the CT Mirror, Lamont mostly disavowed the most controversial parts of the reform he had pushed for, which would have linked student test scores with tenure decisions. What ended up passing was watered down significantly from earlier proposals, which brought legions of teachers protesting at the state Capitol, along with notoriety for Malloy as a major school reform Democrat.
Running for governor last year, education was a side show, at best. Joe Ganim tried to make on issue over whether Lamont unfairly claimed teaching experience because he volunteered for a while at Harding High School. But that was mostly a 2006 retread and never got any traction.
In the general election, education was again an afterthought. That was true for all kinds of issues, which is what happens when one candidate bases his entire race on a promise to deliver a magic tax cut to solve all our problems. That leaves the other side to say, Sorry, you’re not getting a magic tax cut. Credit the electorate for seeing through that one.
These days, Lamont talks about education using the same tone he uses for most things — he wants everyone to get together and work on solutions that benefit everyone, which is fine, if vague. He’s focused on incentives to attract the best teachers, and he sounds not at all interested in bringing back a Malloy-era reform attempt.
That’s part of a bigger trend. Democrats were not long ago the party of school reform, and it came from the top. Barack Obama made it key to his education agenda, pushing supposed fixes that included more relaxing tenure rules and linking student test scores to various rewards. Critics, rightly, said it all looked like a privatization plan, and wouldn’t work anyway.
The politics around school reform have shifted. To name one prominent reformer, Cory Booker made a national name as mayor of Newark, N.J., for, among other things, pushing charter schools and even vouchers. Today, as he gets ready to run for president, his longtime reform enthusiasm is likely to be a serious hurdle in a Democratic primary. That wouldn’t have been the case even a few years ago.
Unlike Lamont, Malloy is as fiery as ever, complaining still about not getting his plans through. But he’s not governor anymore.
No one expects anything revolutionary from Lamont, the kind of large-scale solutions that might make a difference — things like desegregation, regionalization and mass reallocation of resources. But just by focusing on smallbore fixes, and avoiding plans that would bring actual harm, his governorship is likely to be a positive step for students.