Governor Vetoes Requirements For Education Commissioner [Courant]

July 2, 2015

Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has vetoed a bill requiring the state’s education commissioner to have classroom and administrative experience, saying enshrining job requirements in state law could hamstring a governor’s ability to choose the best candidate.

“Open-mindedness and flexibility are paramount in a search for the right candidate who can best respond to the educational challenges that face our state,” Malloy wrote. “The establishment of qualifications for the commissioner of education in statute closes the door on a broad pool of talented and diverse leaders who would otherwise be eligible and could foster greatness in our schools.”

Malloy’s action comes despite overwhelming approval for the measure by both houses of the legislature and strong support from the teachers unions.

“It’s stunning,” said Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, particularly when the almost all the legislators who voted on the measure “believe there should be qualifications for the commissioner of education and he’s saying there really doesn’t need to be. He’s saying whoever the governor is should be able to pick and choose based on what he or she thinks is necessary for the state. I just think it’s a wrongheaded decision on his part.

“We set qualifications for teachers in the classroom to attract the best and the brightest,” Waxenberg said. “We should also set qualifications for the commissioner of education to attract the best and the brightest.”

Waxenberg said he plans to talk with legislators to see if there is a “serious willingness” to pursue an override of the veto.

Jan Hochadel, president of AFT-Connecticut, said in an email: “Of course we’re disappointed that the governor vetoed a bill that would establish a higher standard for the state’s education commissioner. Our union members have long advocated for leadership with actual teaching experience …”

Hochadel praised the governor’s selection of the current state education commissioner, Dianna Wentzell, who did have years of teaching and school administrative experience.

“To his credit, the governor heard the voices of educators and wisely chose a new commissioner with extensive background in the classroom,” Hochadel said. “We expect that he and future governors would follow this example in recommending leadership for the state’s education agency.”

The measure approved by the General Assembly calls for the education commissioner to have roughly the same qualifications as a school superintendent.

House Bill 6977 would have required the state commissioner of education to have a master’s degree along with at least five years of experience as a teacher and three as an administrator. Rep. Andy Fleischmann, co-chairman of the education committee, said Connecticut is one of four states that sets no requirements for the job.

Fleischmann said he was disappointed to hear of the governor’s veto.

“If you follow the logic of the governor’s veto message, then apparently our standards for school superintendents are too stringent and we should loosen those. I think that’s incorrect.”

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a ranking member on the legislature’s education committee, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, issued a statement that said: “Since taking office in January 2011, Gov. Malloy has been highly critical of teachers and retired teachers. Today’s veto of an important measure will surely give them cause for concern.”

“Why would he veto this valid request? Apparently, it ‘restricts’ his authority to pick a new candidate,” the statement said.

Allan Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, said he has a “general preference for preserving the flexibility to respond to whatever circumstances exist at the time that future board” has to select a commissioner. He noted that the current commissioner has teaching and administrative experience, but he said, “I think there may be times when a future board and governor decide that they need something else.”

Questions about qualifications dogged the last commissioner of education, Stefan Pryor. Appointed by Malloy in 2011, Pryor has a law degree, not a doctorate in education, and has a background in economic development, not many years as a classroom teacher.

Pryor was, however, one of the founders of the state’s first charter school in New Haven. He left the state in January to take a job as Rhode Island’s first secretary of commerce.

In explaining his veto in a letter to Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill, Malloy said that candidates to serve as education commissioner are already subject to legislative review. But passing a law that establishes firm criteria for the job could limit the diversity of future applicant pools because women and minorities tend to be underrepresented in the ranks of school administrators.

“It should be our mission to encourage creative education leaders regardless of background to consider tackling the challenge of closing the achievement gap and leading our students and teachers to even greater heights,” the governor wrote.