Gov. Malloy’s wise veto of the education commissioner bill

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If you aim to limit the amount of innovation that can happen in the public education arena, one surefire method would be to keep it an insider’s game.

On Monday the legislature is required to convene a veto session to consider whether to override any of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s vetoes.  At this time, it is unclear whether they will make that attempt.  One thing is clear, the legislature should not override the veto of legislation that would require future commissioners of education to meet certain qualification thresholds regarding k-12 teaching and administrative experience.

Wisely recognizing that this legislation would establish unnecessary limitations, Gov. Malloy vetoed the bill. That decision protects future governors from being bound by politically motivated constraints when selecting their own commissioners.

Our existing system of appointing commissioners of education already has a system of checks and balances in place. The governor recommends a candidate, who then must be approved by the legislature. It would be shortsighted to limit the pool of candidates that a governor can consider for the position because the type of candidate needed often depends on the gubernatorial agenda and education landscape.

For an example, take Gov. Malloy’s track record. During his two terms, he has selected two very different candidates for the job of commissioner of education. These candidates were specifically appointed to meet the demands of the position at the time in which they were chosen.

In 2011, as Gov. Malloy was signaling an intention to improve public education outcomes, he nominated Stefan Pryor, a law school graduate and expert in policy. Pryor had a nontraditional background that uniquely qualified him for introducing new ideas and injecting change into a stagnant system. The governor’s recommendation was widely supported, and the legislature approved Pryor’s appointment.

This year, the facts on the field had changed. Gov. Malloy now needs to focus on properly implementing the policies that have been passed, rather than developing new ones. Accordingly, he recommended Dr. Dianna Wentzell, a career educator with district leadership experience, who properly understands the nuances of implementation work. The legislature approved her appointment as well.

The appointment of these dissimilar figures demonstrates how well our existing system already works. The governor must identify the leadership skills that he needs to carry out his vision, and the legislature then may exercise its authority to affirm that appointment.

It would be inappropriate to make the qualifications for the role of commissioner too narrow because they necessarily shift, depending on the shifting needs of our state. True, we ideally want a candidate who understands teaching and the administration of public education. But we also want a candidate who has legal and political expertise.

Do we therefore add a legislative requirement that the commissioner have a J.D.? At times, it will be very important for the commissioner to have experience with public communications. Do we then add a requirement of a communications degree? Commissioners will sometimes need to address school funding issues. Should we require that Commissioners have an MBA? Of course not.

A properly balanced system of appointment will recognize that priorities change, and will be reasonable without being too prescriptive. Just think about who might not qualify if the governor had not vetoed this ill-conceived bill.

For instance, the Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has an A.B. from Yale and a J.D. from University of Virginia; graduated first in his class; served as a law clerk for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist; has received multiple awards for collegiate teaching; and has written extensively on school desegregation, school finance, and standards.

Under the vetoed legislation Dean James Ryan would automatically be disqualified to serve as the commissioner. That would be simply illogical.

What is quite obvious is that the vetoed legislation in question would have disqualified Commissioner Pryor — wrongly, in my estimation. Regardless of the buyer’s remorse that some might feel today, it remains a fact that the legislature approved Pryor’s selection at the time, and that both the governor and the State Board of Education expressed public satisfaction with his performance — largely because of his leadership in the development and enactment of landmark legislation aimed at closing Connecticut’s widest-in-the-nation achievement gap.

Regardless of the true reasons behind the legislation, it remains clear that the governor’s decision to veto the bill was wise and in the best interest of Connecticut’s citizens.  The legislature must resist all pressures aimed at undermining the governor’s judgment.

Ramani Ayer is former Chairman and CEO of The Hartford. He is Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a nonprofit that works to narrow Connecticut’s achievement gap. 

What do you think?

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