THE HOUSE unveiled a much-improved version of the state’s high-stakes education bill this week. So far, at least, the House hasn’t been rolled by teachers’ union officials, who eviscerated the Senate version of the bill in November.Although I often find myself criticizing the deleterious role that the Commonwealth's public sector unions play in our government, nine times out of ten the true target of my criticism is union leadership, not rank-and-file members. That is particularly true of the teachers' union. I know plenty of Massachusetts public school teachers. Several good friends are teachers or administrators in our public schools. Every one of them cares deeply about their students and about education. Most of them loathe the unions that they are literally forced to join. These teachers support merit pay. They support teacher evaluation. They oppose union seniority rules that allow mediocre (and bad) teachers to simply muddle through, year after year, protected from dismissal by their longevity.
Unions bristle when blamed for failed schools, and they are certainly right that parents and school administrators should share responsibility. But it is increasingly obvious that union contract provisions, especially regarding dismissal of ineffective teachers and length of school days, are limiting the chances of students in low-performing schools and districts. The Senate at first seemed to understand what was at stake and embraced the notion that school superintendents or the education commissioner could force changes in teachers’ contracts. But the Senate bowed to the unions’ insistence on imposing a lengthy labor arbitration process.
The leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, on the other hand, could not be more different from the membership that they purport to represent. Perversely, these seasoned political gutter-fighters cloak themselves in the virtue of the teachers described above, claiming to act always in the interests of "the children," when in fact their sole objective in most instances is protection of the lowest common denominator in the teaching ranks from any semblance of accountability.
The Globe is correct to observe, in what could be the understatement of '09, that "it is increasingly obvious that union contract provisions, especially regarding dismissal of ineffective teachers and length of school days, are limiting the chances of students in low-performing schools and districts." It is nice to see that the House bill recognizes that - especially in light of the troubling symbiosis noted here. It will be interesting to see if that recognition survives to the final version of the bill.
The slow death of public civil discourse. Jeff Jacoby's column in today's Globe laments the decidedly uncivil tone of public debate over the past year. By utter coincidence, at the gym this morning I read a much longer treatment of the same topic from a recent edition of the Weekly Standard. The gist of it is that the U.S. Supreme Court's defamation jurisprudence, which over time has evolved to protect all but the most egregiously defamatory criticism of those in public life, has coarsened public debate, encouraged deliberate ignorance, and ultimately serves to discourage people who care about their reputations from entering public life. In my own (failed) run for public office, I was fortunate to have an opponent who shared my desire to keep our debate civil and issues-oriented. We disagreed often, sometimes heatedly, but always respectfully. Unfortunately, that has become the exception rather than the rule. In any event, the Standard article, by Professor Robert Nagel, is thought-provoking and worth a read.
Finally, truth in advertising. If ever there were a headline perfectly targeted at the core "climate change" demographic, it is this one in the Globe today:
DeLeo on Wednesday said Daniel Crane, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, would perform an independent review of the House’s contract with the law firm Gargiulo/Rudnick.Daniel Crane is, in fact, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association - a credential that, taken in the isolation in which it is presented by the AP might serve understandably to bolster his credibility. Ah, but there's a pretty significant factoid mission from the AP's ever-so-brief biographical sketch of Mr. Crane. The State House News more completely introduces him thusly: "Dan Crane, the Patrick administration's former consumer affairs chief, was named late Wednesday by Speaker Robert DeLeo to review House legal spending..."
So now the Speaker has retained a Democratic political insider to conduct a wholly unnecessary review of legal bills that ought simply to be disclosed to the public, as has been demanded by a small but energetic group of Democratic lawmakers for several weeks now. Critics will correctly carp that this smacks of an inside job. That criticism misses the point, however. The fact that Crane formerly worked for Governor Patrick does not mean he cannot fulfill this new task with honesty and integrity. At the end of that process, however, in even the best case scenario he will report that his review did not turn up any impropriety - which will leave the public and the press again asking, "so what's in those bills that you guys refuse to release?"
This says it all. Excellent dual observation from the inimitable Jim O'Sullivan of the State House News, introducing number 8 in his list of the top ten Massachusetts political stories of the decade:
If you were a speaker of the Massachusetts House whose regime sat entirely in the first 10 years of the 21st century, you left office and then you got indicted. Alternately, if you were the top Justice Department official in the Bay State during that span, you probably indicted a former speaker of the Massachusetts House.