Sunday, July 5, 2009

Deval's on schools: how serious?

The latest move from the Executive Branch of our fair commonwealth arrived three days ago:

The Patrick administration, in a sharp deviation from previous state policy, will seek legislative approval to take over about 30 of the state’s worst schools and dramatically weaken their teacher contracts, as part of the governor’s effort to overhaul public education.

If this were to pass, this would be a radical change in education in this state, and I think that it's worth asking how serious Deval is about this. So let's try to read the tea leaves.

Signs that he's not serious:
It's just a press release. Deval is notorious for issuing press releases, doing nothing, and then claiming credit for whatever the Legislature does in the subsequent time period. See pension reform -- the bill was written, debated, and passed by the Legislature, but no members of the General Court were present at Deval's press conference. Mind you, this is pretty much the governor's approach to his job om any issue, so this disengagement from all other policymakers may not be much of a telltale.
There's no meat on it. News agencies are forced to extrapolate from an astoundingly brief mention on the governor's site. Maybe it's a trial balloon...two days before a national holiday in the dead of summer. It certainly has even less thought than his press release on pension reform. The thirty schools subject to Deval's direct administration aren't even listed.
Even Deval knows it's nearly impossible to pull this off: The state is can barely afford to supply Local Aid to meet fundamental budgets for schools, but has the money to hire an army of consultants for thirty schools under Deval's direction? I have no idea from which line item this would come, unless Deval is hoping to run the schools with his people, and bill the towns and cities for the privilege. The Readiness Report stands as a monument to Deval's approach of speaking loudly and doing nothing on education. I'm not sure that right before an election, the governor will direct people to fire public servants based on rules created during Romney's administration.
He pulled it out of his a--: Despite claims to the contrary, pretty much nobody saw this coming -- the most common media description of reaction to this announcement is "stunned". It's devoid of details and full of double-talk (typical: "The school is still part of the district, the district just loses a measure of control’’). Again, vintage trial balloon stuff.

On the other hand, reasons to believe Deval is serious:
This is another opportunity for union-busting: One thing that anchors Deval Patrick's minimal interest in education is an implacable hostility to labor organization among education professionals. The Readiness Report mulls forcing teachers into a statewide labor union, forcing regionalization (which would weaken district unions), and opening the pathway to anti-union "Readiness Schools" based on the thinnest of justifications. So, the line that this would "allow the state to change local policies, suspend sections of teacher contracts" fits right into Deval's anti-union mentality.
More executive power: Like any executive, Deval enjoys accruing more power in the name of "efficiency" or "restructuring". This chance to step all over local democracy in return for gathering more power to the governor's office is the norm for our recent executives, and was another constant in Deval's Readiness Report.
Deval has to do something: The governor is taking on water rapidly, moving people from his office or the Obama team into his political operation. He can't stay ahead of uninspiring rivals such as Christy Mihos or Tim Cahill in the polls. Though Deval Patrick has quite an echo chamber online and in the Democratic Party, it isn't enough to make any strategist breathe easier. Marching consultants into schools makes for good tv and makes it look as if Deval is doing something about education.
Deval has full faith in the ivory tower: From Paul Reville to Dana Mohler-Faira, Deval Patrick's "advisors" on education are largely ivory tower folks unfamiliar with actual classrooms. He has shown uneven respect for classroom teachers and administrators, preserving an archaic rule that bans them from the state Board of Education. Meanwhile, his advisory team is heavy on teacher college folks who stand to gain the most from casting doubt on the abilities and qualifications of people who work in public education today. Insulated in private education and private business since he began his teenage years, Deval Patrick's understanding of public education relies a lot more on those around him than anyone else.

It's tough to tell what would happen. Springfield and Chelsea demonstrate that experts (aka people who know no more than you, but work elsewhere) can't do much beyond stabilize a situation, and wait to receive credit. There is a chorus who will embrace anything Deval Patrick proposes, even if they'd have fought tooth and nail against Mitt Romney attempting the same power grab, their numbers are lower.

In the end, though, the fact remains that the Patrick political operation is getting more and more desperate (see his undermining of Plymouth Rock Studios in Therese Murray's district) and a desperate politician often makes desperate moves.

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