Can ConnCAN Con Conn

 Money, Power and Politics:  The unseemly underside of the Education Reform Debate.

Also known as the not so subtle relationship between ConnCAN and Achievement First.

With a rather incredible twist with the arrival of Connecticut’s new Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.

The year of “Education Reform” in Connecticut has begun. This coming Thursday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is bringing together all the various stake holders to discuss how to move forward with one of the most important issues of our time – revamping Connecticut’s education system.  The education reform group known as the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, Inc (ConnCAN) will most certainly be at the table.

When the dust settles, there will be winners and losers.

One of the organizations that stand to gain the most is Achievement First, Inc., the “Charter School Management” company that presently has 19 schools in Connecticut and New York City including the well known Amistad Academy.

Achievement First has big plans for expansion.  According to their 2010 Annual Report, their strategic plan is to expand from 19 schools with 5,400 students to 35 schools with over 12,000 students.  As they put it, Achievement First would then “serve more students than 95 percent of the school districts in the United States.”

And with that growth would come big money.  Calling it a “Management Fee”, Achievement First collects a percentage of all the funds going to each of its schools.  In 2009-2010, Achievement First’s “Management Fees” amounted to more than $4.1 million.

It’s an interestingly side note that about 60 percent of Achievement First’s “Management Fees” came from Connecticut schools, despite the fact that Connecticut students only make up about 40 percent of Achievement First’s students.

In any case, at this rate, if Achievement First succeeds with their strategic plan they will be collecting upwards toward $10 million a year in “Management Fees”.

To implement their plan, one of things Achievement First must do is persuade Connecticut policymakers to adopt education reforms that will favorably position the Charter School Management company so it can expand here in Connecticut.  And to do that, it needs a seat at the table and especially at the education reform negotiating sessions that will be taking place behind closed doors over the next five months.

The good news for Achievement First is that they already have ConnCAN.   ConnCAN, the “independent” education advocacy group, is already working closely with the Malloy Administration.  ConnCAN is also “closely aligned” with Achievement First and its agenda.

Not only is ConnCAN a perfect model of what a good public relations plan and lots of money can accomplish, it also reveals how corporate America consistently worms its way into the public policy making process.

Achievement First, ConnCAN and its unknown sister organization the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, Inc., are working to ensure that Achievement First’s specific interests are being advanced in the upcoming education reform debate.

The facts are simple and speak for themselves (or as the saying goes, keep an eye on the bouncing ball):

Achievement First, Inc. was formed in July 2003 to serve as the vehicle for creating the Amistad Academy and exploring the development of additional charter schools in Connecticut.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools aren’t run by elected boards of education.  In the case of Achievement First, the core of their board of directors is made up of a small group of wealthy Fairfield County businessmen.  Achievement First’s incorporation papers were signed by Greenwich businessman William Berkley (who remains the Chairman of its Board of Directors) and Stamford’s Jonathan Sackler.  Achievement First’s board also includes businessmen Alexander Troy from Greenwich and Ray Smart from Wilton.

A year later, in September 2004, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, Inc (ConnCAN) was formed.  Leading the ConnCAN Board of Directors were a number of Achievement First’s directors including Jonathan Sackler, Alexander Troy, Ray Smart and Andrew Boas (who later joined the Achievement First board).

And then, three months after that, Jonathan Sackler and Alexander Troy (Directors from Achievement First’s Board) set up ConnCAN’s sister organization the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, Inc.

The following chart highlights the connections between Achievement First and its related entities.

Achievement First Board The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) Board The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy Leaders
Jonathan Sackler Jonathan Sackler Jonathan Sackler
Alexander Troy Alexander Troy
Ray Smart Ray Smart
Andrew Boas Andrew Boas

This third entity, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, immediately hired Gaffney Bennett, one of Connecticut’s most prominent lobby firms,

Over the next six years the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy paid Gaffney Bennett at least $540,000 to push for more charter school funding and changes to Connecticut’s charter school laws, money and changes that would directly benefit Achievement First.

However, unlike Achievement First and ConnCAN, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy is set up in such a way as to avoid having to produce public reports.  To this day it remains a mystery how ConnCAN’s sister organization came up with more than half a million dollars to spend on lobbying.

This year, as if to finally drive home the connection between the ConnCAN and the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy Inc., Gaffney Bennett’s lobbying invoices, for the first time, are actually being paid for by ConnCAN to the tune of $95,000 a year.

Finally, if that isn’t enough evidence tying the three organizations together, click on and then

With Achievement First deeply involved in a controversial effort to open schools in Providence, Rhode Island, a Rhode Island Coalition for Achievement Now (RI-CAN) appeared in the Ocean State.  As you will see, not only does RI-CAN use the exact same website design as ConnCAN but it repeatedly includes the same language and rhetoric that ConnCAN uses here in Connecticut.

But in Rhode Island, unlike here in Connecticut, there is no effort to hide the relationship with Achievement First.  You’ll see, at least until they take it down, that the RI-CAN website continuously flashes “Put Achievement First in Providence.”

So much for ConnCAN’s independence.

Oh and last but not least, at the very moment Achievement First and ConnCAN are working to infuse their agenda into Connecticut’s education reform proposals, one of Achievement First’s greatest champions suddenly shows up to not only sit at the head of the table but to oversee the entire education reform debate.

Stefan Pryor, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education and Governor Malloy’s point person on education reform not only helped create the Amistad Academy but served on Achievement First’s Board of Directors from 2004 through at least 2010.

As his resume and news articles reveal, time and time again Pryor has used his relationship with Amistad and Achievement First as evidence of his policy expertise.  That expertise has earned him multiple speaking engagements and opportunities to work on various projects.

Yet despite a commitment to greater transparency in state government, neither Commissioner Pryor nor the Malloy Administration has acknowledged what is certainly the appearance of a major conflict of interest.

In the months to come, Connecticut’s Education Commissioner will be directing the overall reform effort and the decisions he makes could result in millions of dollars, even tens of millions of dollars going to the very organization that he helped create, expand and manage until he recently and quietly resigned from Achievement First’s Board of Directors.

  • Jeff Klaus

    The suspect “management fee” is the equivalent of admin overhead for a traditional district. AF provides admin support for its schools including recruiting, training, curriculum design, finance and admin., etc. The system is set up this way to allow principals to be real education leaders within their building – and not bureaucrats. I challenge you to find a public school district that runs on a 10% OH rate as does AF.

    When Steven Adamowski got to Hartford he estimated that for every tax dollar he found draining into the failing Hartford public schools, 35 cents went to the downtown BOE bureaucrats. So AF spends 10% on admin. and delivers life-saving education for children who have been trapped in failing public school systems.

    Interesting divergence of perspectives. Where some people see a plutocratic conspiracy, others recognize that high performing charter schools are delivering on their promise to close the achievement gap while being more efficient.

    • jonpelto

      As always Jeff I appreciate your perspective and I don’t disagree that tremendous amounts of money are wasted in the education bureaucrats.

      Education Reform is needed – a working education system is the single most important factor as we try to prepare for and build an economy for the 21st century.

      As I’ve written here before, I am very suspicious of the the test score data. There is no question charter schools often (not always) do better but there is also no question that – however it is being done – charter schools are getting the students who are less poor, have greater proficiency in English and come from homes in which English is the home language. Since poverty and language are proving to be two of the biggest factors when it comes to CMT test scores I honestly believe if you pulled the test scores for this cohort of students from the district public school you’d find the same results as those in the charter schools.

      Also, I really do believe in transparency. For example, some Democrats need to be more honest about their connections to unions. We’ve had a number of legislators who were actually union employees and yet voted on issues affecting unions.

      I feel the same holds true in when it comes to the various elements of the education reform movement.

      And just to be fair and clear for our readers – your comments come from someone who knows that you are talking about. You were very active back on the Governor’s Commission on Education Finance and serve on the advisory committee of ConnCAN correct?

  • CT Dad

    “If Goldman Sachs could find a way to make money off of public education then charter schools would go away.”
    – anonymous

  • Paul bogush

    Wow…I thought that no one else in CT knew about this. I cannot believe there was no uprise about the new Head of Ed in Ct and his connections.

    As a teacher, I know that this year due to changes being made my kids will less ready to create the future, and just more prone to being bystanders. Mallory’s plan does nothing to change this.

    Sometimes I think that interpreters need to be hired to explain to the public what Ed reforms actually translate to in the classroom.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • jonpelto

      Thanks so much. Its been an interesting process connecting all the dots and putting the puzzle pieces together. I become more and more shocked the more I found… I’ve got a few more pieces coming….

  • PublicCharterMom

    I must admit that when I read this piece I thought I was reading a piece previously posted and quickly realized that it is the manner in which you manipulate and play with data and words to drive your point home. Achievement First Academies are great schools. They are also public schools. Until you compare apples to apples and stop using apples to point to oranges your pieces will not be fair assessments that truly speak to what our children are going to. See Mr. Pelto at the end of the day, while you are pointing out that RI-Can is in fact exactly what you state they are, an education reform group that is supporting reform in Rhode Island and trying to make that out to be something secretive, you always miss the point: It’s about the children. Please visit an Achievement First Academy and post a piece that truly speaks to both sides. I can assure you that, unlike the way you write about these academies, the children there won’t manipulate how they look or interact in order to make you see things differently.

  • Serwaa Anokye

    Jon, obviously you have not visited Amistad Academy. If you had, you would find that our school population is quite the opposite of what you have depicted in your response to Jeff. I am a proud parent of a scholar who attends Amistad Middle School and I invite you to visit our school and see our scholars at work.

    Listening is the most difficult skill to learn and the most important to have. ~African Proverb

  • anna Kuperman

    Thank you for posting this Jon. Here in RI, the Board of Regents will possibly vote on January 5 about whether to bring AF into our city. After closing five of our public, neighborhood schools last spring, creating major havoc for children, parents and teachers, the city may see more of the same this spring. How can this improve education for all if it’s a lottery and it leads to closing our already existing schools?

    And to the moms who wrote above about the great education their kids are receiving, I just want to say that is excellent for you, but a lottery is not the answer for improving our public schools. AF and any charter that uses a lottery is a chance, not a choice. And frankly, it’s not a chance that I am interested in subjecting my children to. But that’s another post!

    And to the lackey who commented on how excellent it is to give AF money for their overhead costs–siphoning off more money for duplicate bureaucracies, even if one is more streamlined than the other, makes no sense.

    If you do anymore research on RI-CAN let me know. I’m sickened by all these hacks. I’m a public school teacher and parent and trying to be an activist to defend public education in Providence.

    Thank you for this info.

  • school mom

    Thank you for posting this! You are a hero!

  • Susan O’Connell

    Jon –
    There are actually about a dozen more “dots” to connect.
    As soon as I finish typing up some of the research I’ve done, I’ll send it to you.

  • Jane

    What I know is this, I am a single working mother of four boys three of whom are lucky enough to have gotten seats at Achievement First Hartford and I could not be more pleased with the education they are receiving. I have had the experience of dealing with three different traditional public schools in hartford as well as two Magnet schools in Connecticut and none have met the child where they are and brought them to where they should be and now beyond that. If the program works why not expand it……someone has to change the lack of education that is occuring in some traditional school districts ……someone has to say we want the best for our children…….. someone has to stand up and fight for better education. I have read alot about your thoughts on the schools of Achievement First and its “Management” I wonder if you have looked beyond the paperwork and into the lives of the students who attend these schools and what these schools are doing for them and the families and neighborhoods around them before you put words to paper and bash a system that has helped many students and families. I know that for my family I have three boys who are invested in their school work and are actually looking at different career paths and different colleges and I can say when they were in traditional schools no one spoke to them about college or gave them the impression that they could go to college. I wonder have you ever been to an event or visited an Achievement First school? If I invited you to come and visit the school to experience first hand the administration, the teachers, and especially the students would you come? Would you sit in a classroom or walk amid the hallways or sit and have lunch with some students? Could you keep an open mind until you see and experience the education my children are getting?

    • jonpelto

      To the parents of students attending Achievement First schools; Please re-read my posts. I have never once suggested that the schools your children are attending are doing a bad job. I appreciate your dedication to your children and your schools. One of the most important factors that impact how children do in school is whether they have parents who are committed to helping them succeed. So obviously your children have the first building block to success.

      I’ve raised a number of concerns about charter schools but none have been about their quality. To date I haven’t received any comments to refute those concerns.

      Instead I’ve received comments from parents who really like their school.

      I honestly think that is great. I too loved (most of the time) the schools my children attended incluing a Hartford area magnet.

      My primary concerns are about how the government funds charter schools and my belief that shifting scarce resources from public district schools to charter schools will make it even harder for those schools to succeed. Providing a quality education to 1% of the students while leaving the other 99% in failing schools is certainly not the answer for ensuring that all children receive the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. I have actually never seen charter schools talk about increasing funding for all schools – instead they have focused almost exclusively on “the money follows the child” which will leave our urban schools with the same issues and problems but with fewer resources.

      But all of that said, I am glad you feel your children are getting a good education.

      • PublicCharterMom

        In a recent piece you posted that:
        “Charter schools may in fact provide students with “better educational outcome “However, the increased racial isolation means these schools (like many of our urban schools) are unconstitutionally racially isolated. And second, since poverty and English Language proficiency are two main reasons students don’t do as well on the standardized tests, charter schools will inherently do better if when they are serving less poor and fewer non-English speaking students.”
        In another:
        “Despite their rhetoric, not only are most of Connecticut’s charter schools actually increasing racial isolation, they are naively or knowingly overlooking key factors in their ongoing claims that they provide better educational outcomes.”
        And also:
        “In New Haven, the disparity is less prevalent. 12% of New Haven public school students are ELL, which is similar to the percent at the Amistad Academy charter school, but at Elm City College Prep charter school only 9% of the students are ELL.
        While the impact of these statistics has yet to be fully documented, the fact remains that Connecticut’s charter schools are simply not in a position to claim that the quality of their education programs are substantially better than the education in the public schools”

        So please no explain to me how you aren’t, in any of these statements, suggesting or flat out stating that our schools are doing a bad job. Also, explain how you can accuse Achievement First and other public charter schools of unconstitutional racial isolation and then say that you haven’t suggested that our academies are doing a bad job.
        Government funds going to traditional public schools and governments going to public charter schools are going to the same place: the public school system. Money follows the child means that in the case the child leaves a traditional public for a public charter school the full per pupil amount follows that child. As is the case if a child goes from a traditional to a traditional. Again public dollars in the public school system.
        What I continue to see in your one sided argument is that you want it to remain as just that: one side. You have been invited to visit an Achievement First Academy and instead of responding to that you continue to bash our choice and state that it is not one that deserves equity in funding. My child deserves a fair and equal chance. That is the purpose of the lottery. Achievement First applications are not only in English and that is just one of many things that directly makes your argument about strategic marketing that recruit’s less poor kids.
        I again extend an invitation to any of the Achievement First Academies you would like to visit. I, along with other Achievement First parents, have respond to your arguments on almost every piece you have posted about Achievement First. Clearly our comments your pieces are too straight forward and so you don’t see our response to your consistent bashing of the education our kids are receiving.

        • jonpelto

          Public Charter Mom, off to read to my kids but I’ll respond to your questions and points tomorrow for sure.

  • Jane

    We must realize that the reason why charter schools even have a chance at success is that the traditional public schools are and have been failing our children. I would have never moved my children from a school a hop skip and jump away from my front door if it was able to properly educate my child. The question is that by leaving the money behind in the district school are we are sending a message that the education they are providing is ok? We cannot throw money at the problem and expect things to improve because it has been done and we still have failing schools. So while there is still a big problem with equal educational opportunities for all students in CT….in the mean time their is no reason for children in charter schools to be funded unequally in comparison to their neighborhood traditional school. So if the state wants leave the money in the broken school system I say sure….but my child ‘s school should be equitably funded; not at 75% of what the district gets. Lets be fair.

  • Jean de Smet

    A few years ago, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Closing the Achievement Gap toured the state soliciting ideas about education reform. Their report included none of the grassroots ideas that citizens proposed. (There were few of those, of course, because the meetings were held at dinner hour so parents were hard pressed to attend.)
    But now I see the problem. People with alternative ideas don’t have $540,000 to lobby the Governor, so we just can’t play the game.

  • Noteworthy

    I am deeply troubled by the manipulation and co-mingling of fake “independent” non-profits who are manipulating public policy for the parent organization’s financial benefit. Not disclosing this all these years and in effect, taking over the education commissioner’s office via a manchurian candidate look alike is stunningly evil and non-transparent.

    As to a 10% management fee, it shounds like not such a large number until you start applying it to a greater number of schools. Once the core costs of providing overhead support, there is only one reason to keep charging a full 10% across each individual school – profit at public expense. If you add two schools, there is not a corresponding increase in real and actual oversight/support cost. Yet, the fee is still assessed.

  • Dave

    Isn’t this the nature of politics, where Money follows the Politician? How about you do this for donations from teacher unions to Mr. Donovan?

    • jonpelto

      Dave, exactly – sometimes people give money to say thank you, sometimes people give money in the hopes of winning over friends and sometimes they give money to try and reduce a politician’s level of opposition. It will be very interesting to see how Mr. Donovan handles the whole “education reform” effort and I will be sure to report the connections in detail.

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  • Matt Greenfield

    ConnCAN and Achievement First are not conspiring to do anything bad….they are conspiring to give some children a chance to get a great education. Achievement First’s students end up with math and reading skills right up there with kids from Greenwich and Westport. We should be celebrating Achievement First and criticizing the failing urban school systems that have produced such deplorable results for so many years. This post has things backward.

    • jonpelto

      Mr. Greenfield. I’ll respond in greater detail but I just want to say its an honor that you’d take the time to read and post to my blog. I know of the work you have done and the contribution you’ve made to a better world. I agree with much of what you’ve done – although I have serious reservations about an important aspect of the Achievement First impact. There is no question that charter schools like the ones you have put together provide a quality education. That provides great opportunity for the children you serve. That said, all the evidence points toward the fact that these schools are creaming off the best students, leaving the rest of the children and the problems behind – and with the notion that money would follow the child – it will leave those students with even less resources to build a workable solution. If Achievement First was calling for additional funding for revitalizing our urban school districts as well as more money for Achievement First I would approach this issue slightly differently. In any case, I want to thank you for taking the time to read my posts and to add to the debate. For our readers, Matt Greenfield has been a guiding force behind Achievement First, ConnCAN and the charter school movement.

    • Mr. Greenfield, these students do as well as Greenwich and Westport students as measured by what? If it’s CMTs and CAPT tests, the results are nearly meaningless. They do not measure education or real skills. Ask any good teacher; ask any serious student.

  • CT Veteran

    Why does education reform always neglect parent accountability? If you choose to send your child to a charter school it means you are taking an active role in your childs education. It might be a simple role, but its still something. Many students fall through the gaps because after they leave the classroom no one cares about what they are or arent doing. You could pay teachers min wage or a million dollars, force them to work 12 hours a day 365 days a year. Teachers are not their students parents. They cant make them do anything. Look at the top districts and then look at parent involvement. If a child makes it to high school not knowing how to read, we are real quick to blame the system, but shame on the parents for not noticing.

    Are there bad teachers? Yes. Just like there are poor performers in every field. Look at our culture though. A CEO can lose money, cause layoffs, and still gets millions in a package asking them to go away. Apples and oranges you say? Why are we allowing non-educators dictate to our government how reform should be done? Have any of ConnCan’s employees ever tried to prepare students for the high stakes tests they want teachers careers to be based on? If so I would like to know who and in what district.

    Here is an idea for reform. Ask teachers, not their unions, what they think. What reform they would like to see. Ask parents what they would like from their public schools. Quit allowing interest groups to push their agenda, which as much as you all can deny, is to get more charter schools in CT. Quit allowing BOE’s, who are often also made up of non-educators, to mispend monies on projects that benefit a Superintendents resume more than a childs education.

  • Xx

    those CONNAD people also advertise/support  Rush Limbaugh’s program on WTIC–so much for caring about education! I’m sure all the school children they are standing up for would love for their moms who use birth control called sluts.