Don't use schools to round up votes

We live in a state that has separate and unequal public school systems in its cities and suburbs.

Nationwide, our public education is lagging behind other industrialized nations.

And so the Connecticut Senate, faced with these and other crises in the public schools, has voted to require the schools to teach our children more - about labor unions.

With two weeks to go and a lot of important work undone, the state Senate spent 90 minutes last week debating and then passing a bill that would require schools to teach "labor history and law, including the history of organized labor, the collective bargaining process and existing legal protections in the workplace."

What this course of study would replace in a 180-day school year already deemed inadequate to teach large numbers of our children reading, writing, math and science was not considered. The bill richly details the content of the course but it's a bit short on other particulars, such as when it would be taught, or how, or if the mandate would be enforced.

The bill was designed for and is primarily backed by the state's unions and Democratic office holders. The powerful public sector unions, including the teachers, have felt unappreciated lately by their Democratic friends, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and the enthusiasm they will employ in getting out their usually Democratic voters will be crucial this November.

Gov. Malloy, who won the governorship four years ago by only 6,000 votes, faces a challenging re-election and needs their help. He still talks education reform, but earlier this year he ordered his major reform, the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, delayed until after the election because the teacher unions complained about implementing education reforms too quickly. Earlier Malloy proposals, like tenure reform, are a fading memory.

Labor unions have certainly played an important role in the nation's history, acting to counterbalance the abuses of unbridled free enterprise. But many other groups and institutions have also played important roles. Educators need to be left alone to set priorities as they strive to meet mandated core educational standards.

There's nothing new about legislators telling teachers what to teach and over the years, similar legislation has been passed to please, appease or court various voting blocs. Schools are already required to teach about the Irish potato famine as well as African-American, Native-American and Puerto Rican - not Hispanic - history. Legislation requiring the schools to teach the histories of other commonwealths like American Samoa and Guam will presumably have to await the arrival of many more residents of these islands.

The debate on the labor history law did afford lawmakers the opportunity to renew their pledge of allegiance and devotion to organized labor. Democratic senators were nearly poetic in their paeans to the movement. "America today is largely the product of the labor movement," claimed Senate President Donald Williams. "Because of the labor movement, we have protections for life, liberty and yes, the pursuit of happiness." Give Sen. Williams his due. With their early retirements, lifetime health care coverage and pensions, the state employee contracts certainly provide state retirees ample opportunity to pursue happiness.

A slightly more realistic endorsement was offered by Sen. Catherine Osten of Sprague, who admitted the bill is "a very minor piece of legislation" that would, however, help students understand "what it was like to work for the rights and safety of working families."

Unlike these Democrats, Senate Republican John McKinney, a candidate for governor, argued the bill wasn't about improving education in Connecticut and dampened the labor rally the hearing had become by noting, "We have so many problems and we spend hours talking about something that isn't going to solve any of these problems." Sen. McKinney voted with the 10 in the losing minority.

This bill's future is in doubt as it must still pass the House as these legislative days dwindle. Fortunately, other education mandates didn't get this far and schools avoided, for now, having to teach personal finance, CPR training and the use of defibrillators.

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