Malloy’s “Strange Love” for Charter Schools;

Yesterday the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “Shuttering Bad Charter Schools”

In which they said “state governments and local districts need to do a much better job overseeing these schools, which now educate more than two million students. When weak charters stay open, students are deprived and public money is wasted.”

A few hours later Governor Malloy was calling for a record investment in Connecticut’s Charter Schools and funding to open more.

If you read his testimony you won’t see the following expert from a highly critical State Department of Education report.

Continue reading “Malloy’s “Strange Love” for Charter Schools;”

No, No, No! We call it Political Rhetoric – Not Misleading the Public.

Like one of those remote-controlled drones, Governor Malloy’s “education reform” proposal is flying toward its intended destination.  The public hearings on Malloy’s package have begun and they will soon be followed by legislative votes in the House and the Senate.  With the 2012 Legislative Session ending in about 70 days, the Governor’s Office is probably choreographing the signing ceremony already.

To date, the Governor has made it clear that political rhetoric must, when necessary, trump the truth.

In his “historic” call for “education reform”, an end to teacher tenure and a disproportionate transfer of public dollars to charter schools the Governor failed to point out that (1) Connecticut already has one of the longest probationary periods for teachers in the country – four years – which gives school administrators more opportunity to judge a teacher’s capability than do those in most other states and that (2) in 2010 the Legislature adopted major revisions to the teacher evaluation process that already gives Malloy’s Department of Education the power to revamp how teachers are evaluated and require school administrators to actually conduct appropriate evaluations.  They only have to properly implement that new evaluation process.

Finally, the only missing piece is to limit the time-frame and costs associated with the teacher dismissal process – a step that both teacher unions have already endorsed.

But in this case, the truth stands in the way of getting the best headlines and an opportunity to garner “national media coverage” which, of course, is the ultimate goal for those who can’t seem to get out of campaign mode.

Continue reading “No, No, No! We call it Political Rhetoric – Not Misleading the Public.”

Back to Achievement First (Achievement First’s “Not Meant as A Statement of Fact” Approach)

Many will remember when US Senator John Kyl said “over 90% of Planned Parenthood’s budget was used for abortion services when the real number is 3%.  When asked, his press office said that the Senator’s comments were “not meant as a statement of fact.”

In this case, Achievement First, the charter school management company that runs 20 schools in Connecticut and New York claims that where district schools fail, they do better.  Or, as they say, “when compared to their peers in traditional public schools in our same communities” they have done much better and deserve more of the money that was meant for the urban district schools.

There is a link to a recent Hartford Courant story at the end of this post – take a look at that after you complete this article.

Charter schools are an important educational model to consider as the education reform debate proceeds – but Achievement First does a great disservice to the charter school effort when it makes claims that something is a FACT when it is not.

Take for example;

Not that long ago, in a special report produced for public television, the host Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, stood in front of Achievement First’s Amistad Academy and said “All of Amistad’s students are chosen through the same lottery system as other public schools in New Haven. That means Amistad cannot skim high achievers.  It has the same student mix as any other New Haven school.

Dacia Toll, Achievement First’s Co- CEO and President added “We cannot hand pick our students.  We can’t out the ones that are the most challenging…it is important for us to play by the same rules.

And Doug McCurry, the company’s other Co-CEO and President said “we can’t look people in the eye honestly and say “we’ve been really successful.  Can you maybe think about doing what we’re going?”  Because the first thing they’re going to say is “you don’t have the same kids as we do.”  And then the discussion is over.  But we can say “yes we do.”

Achievement First’s claim is that it is succeeding where others have failed.  It is an impressive and powerful argument, and while many policymakers including Governor Malloy and members of the Connecticut General Assembly have echoed that message as their primary defense of shifting money from district schools to charter schools, the fact is – Achievement First’s claim is simply not true.

Achievement First DOES NOT educate the same range of students that district public schools do.  That doesn’t mean their charter schools are bad – far from it – what it does say is that their corporate officers are not telling the truth.

Data from the Connecticut Department of Education: Strategic School Profiles 2009 – 2010

District/School % Minority Students % Free/Reduced Lunch % Latino % ELL* % Homes where English is not the primary language
Hartford Schools 93% 93% 52% 17% 43%
AF-Hartford Academy 100% 68% 10% 5% 5%
New Haven Schools 87% 81% 37% 12% 28%
AF- Amistad Academy 98% 66% 35% 12% 12%
AF – Elm City Prep 99% 69% 21% 9% 9%
Bridgeport Schools 91% 99% 48 13% 40%
AF-Bridgeport 99% 67% 41 6% 6%

*ELL = English Language Learners (students who lack sufficient master of English to “assure equally educational opportunity in the regular school program as mandated by CGS 10-17e)

Achievement First schools are more racially isolated and educate a population of students that is significantly less poor.  The charter schools run by Achievement First include far fewer Latino students than are in the surrounding community, have far few students who are not proficient in the English language and far more students who go home to households where English is the primary language spoken.

Each of those variables correlate with lower standardized test scores and in each case Achievement First is pulling in the children who are most likely to do better on standardized tests and then taking the exclusive credit when they do better.  That is called skimming off the best students.

Achievement First and the issue of Graduation Rates:

Read through everything Achievement First has published for legislators or the general public and you’ll find no information whatsoever about the graduation rates at their high schools

What you will find is the impressive statistic that in 2010 and 2011, the senior classes at the Amistad Academy and Elm City Preparatory school achieved a 100-percent college acceptance rate. The number is very impressive and they deserve tremendous credit for that accomplishment but those documents fail to inform the reader that according to an Achievement First spokesperson “that acceptance into a four-year college is a requirement to graduate from our high schools,”

So of course they have a 100% acceptance rate because if you don’t get accepted to college you are deemed not to have graduated.

More importantly, Achievement First fails to say that along the way (from 9th grade to 12th grade), 51% of the class of 2010 and 2011 simply left the school.

We recognize how important it is to reflect the population that our districts serve,” Sharpe said. “We will do whatever we can working with the community to encourage more applications from that pool of parents. We’re not going to be passive. We’re going to be active.”

Link to Hartford Courant story: http://www.courant.com/news/education/hc-charters-support-malloy-0210-20120209,0,7200798.story

 

Where the State’s new money for local education is going under Governor Malloy’s Education Reform Plan

Achievement First Charter Schools get $2,600 more per student while the 222,000 students in the 30 poorest towns get an increase of $150 per student.

School District

Number of Students*

Increase in Funds*

Increase per student*

Achievement First – The Charter School Company

2,440 (approx)

$6.2 million plus

$2,600

Waterbury

17,656

$4.4 million

$249

Hartford

20,774

$3.7 million

$178

Bridgeport

21,054

$3.3 million

$156

New Britain

10,854

$2.7 million

$245

New Haven

17,633

$2.3 million

$130

Meriden

9,187

$1.8 million

$193

East Hartford

8,027

$1.7 million

$214

Danbury

10,505

$1.7 million

$176

Bristol

8,762

$1.3 million

$159

West Haven

7,390

$1.4 million

$187

Manchester

7,502

$1.2 million

$160

Middletown

5,384

$798,000

$148

Windham

3,345

$764,000

$228

Norwich

11,165

$730,000

$65

Vernon

3,735

$670,000

$180

Naugatuck

4,855

$635,000

$131

New London

5,384

$620,000

$115

Stamford

15,127

$600,000

$40

Hamden

6,945

$583,000

$84

*IMPORTANT NOTE:

The Educational Cost Sharing Formula is $800 million short of what it was supposed to be in order to assure sufficient funding for primary and secondary education. Connecticut’s stated goal was to cover 50% of local educational costs with state funds and 50% with local funds.

In 1990 the state reached its high point of funding 45% of the costs – the number now is between 38-40% depending on how you calculate it – but the formula has been “corrupted” to the point where wealthy towns do much better (as measured by percentage growth) now than they did in 1990 and poorer towns do much worse.

Of the $50 million in new ECS funding, Governor Malloy’s proposal will send $39.5 million to the 30 poorest and lowest performing communities.

However, Governor Malloy’s plan also requires that school districts transfer $1,000 for each student attending an area charter.  Malloy’s budget also provides each charter school with an increase of $1,600 per charter student, for a combined $2,600 increase per charter school student when the new state money and local transfer are counted

Once the transfers to the charter schools are made, the 30 poorest districts will then be sharing $33.5 million in new education funds.

Governor Malloy’s Big Education Reform Day

Governor Malloy lays out his Education Reform Agenda:

Governor Malloy’s plan would have taxpayers paying an additional $2,600 for each of Connecticut’s 6,000 charter schools students and $150 for each of the 222,000 students in Connecticut poorest and lowest performing schools

Malloy’s primary education reform agenda is as follows:

(1) “First, we can enhance families’ access to early childhood education by creating new seats for 500 children who can’t afford preschool and by investing in a new rating system to improve quality. “

RESPONSE: A very good step, but let’s be honest. In 2001 Connecticut spent $250 million on early childhood education. With this additional $4 million the state will spend about $228 million – 10% less than we spent a decade ago on what is universally recognized as the single most important step we can take in achieving better educational outcomes down the road.

(2) “Second, we need to address our badly broken system for delivering state resources to the schools.  This year, we will add 50 million to the Education Cost Sharing formula, with the vast majority of that money targeted to the districts serving students with the greatest need.”

RESPONSE: The Educational Cost Sharing Formula is $800 million short of what it was supposed to be in order to assure sufficient funding for primary and secondary education. Connecticut’s stated goal was to cover 50% of local educational costs with state funds and 50% with local funds. In 1990 the state reached its high point of funding 45% of the cost of local education – the number now is between 38-40% depending on how you calculate it – but the formula has been “corrupted” to the point that wealthy towns do much better now than they did in 1990 and poorer towns do much worse.

Of the $50 million in new ECS funding, the Governor’s proposal will send $39.5 million to the poorer communities. However, those are the same communities that under Malloy’s plan will have to transfer $1,000 from their local budget to the charter school in their community for every charter school student. This means that $6 million of the new funds will be transferred to the local charter schools.

Once the transfer to the charter school is made, the 30 poorest districts will then be sharing $33.5 million in new education funds. Since those 30 districts educate 222,000 students, the net increase in per student funding will be $150.

(3) Third, we will transform schools with the worst legacies of low achievement.  The state will serve as a temporary trustee of schools that lack the capacity to improve themselves.  These schools will become part of a Commissioner’s Network and they will receive our most intensive interventions and supports.

RESPONSE: The Governor proposes to spend $25 million dollars over two years to help 25 school districts once the state has “taken over the school system”. This would mean $1 million more for each district over a two year period. The complexity of taking over the school and then only have $1 million to “fix it” is a daunting task. More details will be needed to understand the benefit of this proposal.

(4) Fourth, we can strengthen and expand high-quality school models – whether they are traditional schools, magnet schools, charter schools, or other successful models – and hold them accountable for their results and inclusiveness.

RESPONSE: The Governor is proposing $20 million more to dramatically increase funding for Connecticut’s existing charter schools while authorizing the creation of five new charter schools. As a result of the Governor’s plan, the additional money going to the existing charter schools (directly from the state and from the required local district transfer) will mean that each of the 6,000 charter school students will receive a net increase of $2,600 in funding.

(5) Fifth, let’s remove red tape and barriers to success.  The state can streamline its systems – in teacher certification, data collection, and elsewhere – and free districts to innovate and perform.

RESPONSE: Getting rid of red tape is always a good move. Apparently the changes in the teacher certification process are intended to make it easier for schools to hire out of state teachers.

(6) Sixth and final principle requires us to ensure that our schools are home to the very best teachers and principals.  In order to make that happen, we need to do a better job of helping and supporting our teachers.

UPDATED RESPONSE WITH CORRECT INFORMATION:  The GPA requirement is for the first two years of college not high school – so Governor Malloy wants to require that a student must have a grade point average of 3.3 in order to get into the teacher training program at a Connecticut university of college. To date there has been no evidence provided that students with a higher  GPA (in high school or college)  become better teachers or that those with a GPA of 3.0 or 2.7 should be prohibited from getting a teaching certificate.

Oh, and lastly, Governor Malloy wants to get rid of the existing teacher tenure system. We can cover that issue another day.

2012: The Year of Education – Malloy Goes Bold? Really?

Governor Malloy’s plan would have taxpayers paying an additional $2,600 for each of Connecticut’s 6,000 charter schools students and $150 for each of the 222,000 students in Connecticut’s poorest and lowest performing schools

Courtesy CTMirror

No really, that is the impact of the Governor’s “Bold” funding initiative.

Over the past few days, Governor Dannel Malloy has held a series of press conferences to maximize attention for his education initiatives.  Today he will speak to a joint session of the Connecticut General Assembly and proclaim this – the Year of Education in Connecticut.

Governor Malloy’s Plan includes:

$50 Million more for the ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) Formula with 75% of that money going to the 30 poorest school districts.

$20 million more to dramatically increase funding for Connecticut’s existing charter schools while authorizing the creation of five new charter schools.

$4 million for 500 new early childhood education slots, $3 million for increasing professional development programs for early childhood education providers and $5 million to create a statewide “Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System” so that parents can get more information about the quality of early childhood programs in their area.

And $25 million over the next two years to “transform” 25 district schools by setting up a “Commissioner’s Network where low performing schools would voluntarily participate and allow the state to take over their schools or help them partner with universities or other regional education centers to implement turnaround interventions.”

In addition the Governor will propose efforts to increase the quality of Connecticut’s teachers by mandating that a student must have a grade point average of at least 3.3 (B+) to get into a Connecticut teacher education program. He will also call for setting up a new teacher certification process that will make it easier for teachers from outside of Connecticut to get jobs in the state.  If the B+ requirement was implemented, a recent CTMirror article reported that more than half of those attending Central Connecticut State University to become teachers would have been turned away.

The core of the Governor’s funding proposal is the additional funds for district schools and charter schools in the state.

Of the $50 million in new ECS funding, $39.5 million will go to the poorer communities.  However, those are the same communities that, under Malloy’s plan, will have to transfer $1,000 from their local budget to the charter school in their community for every charter school student. This means that $6 million of the new funds will be transferred to the local charter school.

Once the transfer to the charter school is made, the 30 poorest districts will then be sharing $33.5 million in new education funds.  Since those 30 districts educate 222,000 students, the net increase in per student funding will be $150.

Meanwhile, the additional money going to the existing charter schools (directly from the state and from the required local district transfer) will mean that each of the 6,000 charter school students will receive a net increase of $2,600 in funding.

We’ll learn more about the Governor’s “Bold” Year of Education Initiatives later today.

And so it begins – Malloy’s Plan to Shift Public Funds to Charter Schools

Governor Malloy and Commissioner of Education Stephan Pryor have announced a plan to give charter schools more public funds including money that will be shifted from helping Connecticut’s poorest urban districts.  The primary beneficiary of this move will likely be Achievement First, the large charter school management company that has nine schools in Connecticut.  An Ironic development considering the fact that Stefan Pryor helped create Achievement First and has served as one of its Directors until he resigned to accept Malloy’s invitation to become Connecticut’s Education Commissioner.

Governor Malloy has decided to side with the charter schools in begin the “money follows the child” system in which dollars used to help pay for education in existing school districts would be transferred to the charter schools.

Governor Malloy calls for an increase in per-pupil funding for charter schools from $9,400 to $11,000 and that an additional $1,000 per-pupil would be a transferred directly for the resource poor urban districts to the big-time donor supported charter schools that have recruited students from their area.

Malloy’s plan will increase funding for charters by $21.6 million

School districts would now be required to shift money from their regular programs to Charters.  The CT Post newspapers notes that “for districts like Bridgeport, which sends about 1,400 students to charter school, the cost would be $1.4 million annually.”

The loss of nearly a million and a half dollars would be a major blow to the Bridgeport Public School System but it is not the first time local school districts have been transferring funds to charters .

For example, the City of Hartford allocated $1.5 million to help renovate the old school building that Achievement First – The Hartford Academy moved into.   In addition, Hartford pays Achievement First $500 annually for each Hartford student who attends Achievement First – Hartford Academy (and that is on top of the grant Achievement First gets from the state of Connecticut).   Furthermore, the City of Hartford provided Achievement First with a “one-time payment” of $400,000 to “cover costs associated with the operation of the school”.

As Achievement First has expanded, the cost to the City of Hartford has also gone up.  According to one estimate, Hartford now provides Achievement First with $2.35 million a year, money that could be helping Hartford overcome the existing challenges facing its traditional public schools.

While Achievement First cries poverty, they seem to skip over the fact that the state of Connecticut gave Achievement First $24 million to help build the permanent home of the Amistad Academy.  It was the first grant of its kind to a charter school in Connecticut and will end up costing Connecticut taxpayers well over $35 million to pay back the bonds and interest.

Apparently Governor Malloy’s new plan dismisses these existing taxpayer-funded subsidies as calls for significant increases in funding to be given to Achievement First and other charter schools.

Under the Governor’s plan the number of charter schools allowed in the state would increase from 17 to 22 including some type of incentive that would reward local school districts to set up separate charter schools within their district.

Of course, that overlooks the problem of how does a publicly elected municipal board of education legally allow a charter school to be set up that does not, itself, include an elected board.

Achievement First also claims they need and deserve exactly the same amount of money as local public schools.  However, they do not have unionized faculty and staff so they can pay less…and yet these same teachers are put into the state’s teacher retirement system which will cost Connecticut taxpayers extra tens of millions of dollars more in the years to come.

UPDATE:  Malloy’s plan appears to include a proposal to address the criticism that charter schools are “creaming off” the best students, while leaving those who need extra help back in the district schools.

Readers of this blog will recall that I’ve raised serious concerns about how charter schools, especially those run by Achievement First, have managed to “cream off” the best students which has helped explain their “better performance”.  Poorer students, non-English speaking students, students who go home to a household where English is not the primary language and students with special education needs show up far less often in charter schools.

The Governor’s new proposal seems to recognize that critical issue or at least alludes to it developing a proposal to address it.  We’ll explore in the coming days but the Governor’s press release seems to imply that these new requirements would only apply to new charter school

His press release includes the following text:

Compel specific requirements when creating new charter schools:

  • Adopt legislation requiring any new charter schools to be created only in high-need districts
  • Require the State Board of Education to give new charter school application preferences to schools that:
    • Propose educational programs designed specifically to serve priority student populations, including students with histories of low academic performance, students with histories of behavioral/social problems, special education students, and others
    • Demonstrate strong strategies to attract, enroll, and retain priority student populations
    • Propose an education program designed to serve English language learner students; or propose a location in a neighborhood with a high percentage of English language learner students, while demonstrating capacity to provide high-quality educational services to this population
    • Specialize in turnarounds of low-achieving schools

Focus recruiting on priority student populations:

  • Require all applicants for the establishment of new charters to submit a recruitment and retention plan detailing plans to recruit, enroll, and retain priority student populations
  • Enable charter schools to propose modifications to their lottery procedures to
    give preference to priority student populations
  •  Hold charter schools accountable for the success of their documented recruitment and retention practices for priority student populations when the State Board of Education considers schools for charter renewal

For more information on the breaking story see CTNewjunkie: http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/ctnj.php/archives/entry/malloy_to_give_charter_schools_a_boost/

 

Achievement First Inc. – FIRST! (And then we will get around to education reform)

Achievement First Inc. one of the nation’s larger charter school management companies with 20 schools in New York and Connecticut, is rapidly expanding in Connecticut, despite the fact that the 2012 education reform debate is supposed to include a discussion about whether the state should make greater use of the charter school model.

How does Achievement First and a select group of other charter schools have the authority to expand?

The answer can be found in a 2010 education bill that became law.

If you’ve been following the education reform debate, you will have seen that various news outlets have reported that over the past six years only two new charter schools have opened even though there have been at least 20 applications from charter advocates to open new programs.

And yes, according to published reports, the State Department of Education wouldn’t even accept any applications for new charter schools between 2006 and 2009.

And finally, sitting on Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor’s desk are seven more applications that were filed last October seeking to create an additional 1,600 new charter seats.

Connecticut’s public policy has been to hold off on the expansion of charter schools until a comprehensive education reform plan is developed and adopted.

But meanwhile, as a result of  some “technical language” that was added to a 2010 education bill that passed and became law, the State Board of Education not only has the authority to allow Achievement First and a few other charter schools to expand BUT THEY MUST approve their immediate expansion plans.

Yes, you read that right.  The law requires the State Board of Education to approve the expansion requests from Achievement First and other charter schools regardless of whether the Department of Education believes it’s a good idea.

Perhaps it’s a tribute to the $635,000 ConnCAN and its sister organization has spent on lobbying charter school issues in Connecticut .

As schools in cities and towns all across Connecticut are facing significant budget cuts and layoffs, one wonders what legislators were thinking when they adopted a law that will end up moving even more scarce resources away from our district schools and to these charter schools.

While Achievement First, ConnCAN and other charter school advocates are publicly claiming they are being ill-treated by Connecticut’s policymakers, they seem a little silent on the fact that their legislative lobbying has ensured that they get to expand regardless of what new policies and programs accompany “education reform”.

The sign their rhetoric and reality don’t match surfaced recently when the Hartford Board of Education moved with amazing speed to approve an Achievement First proposal to expand its Hartford based charter school.  Achievement First – HartfordAcademyopened in 2008 as a Kindergarten through 8th grade program.

However last week, the Hartford’s School Board, the same ones who have been so outspoken about the fact that the City of Hartford doesn’t have enough money to run its present schools, voted to allow Achievement First to expand their Hartford Academy program to the ninth grade in the fall of 2012 and then add the remaining three grades in subsequent school years.

So as policymakers and advocacy groups talk about finding common ground on “education reform”, Achievement First is adding an entire high school program in Hartford.  Other charter schools are expanding as well.

Achievement First gets this unique power thanks to Public Act 10-111.

In the past, Connecticut law has required that the State Board of Education review and approve all charter schools applications before the schools can begin operating and one of the primary criteria was whether the General Assembly had decided to provide additional funding for charter schools.  PA 10-111 eliminated the requirement that the Department of Education wait for appropriate funding.

Even more importantly,Connecticut law limited the size of charter schools to 250 students or, in the case of a K-8 schools, 300 students and required that there be no more than 85 students per grade.  Charter schools could ask the Department of Education for approval to be bigger than 250 or 300 but the 85 students per grade requirement still remained.

The new 2010 law eliminated the grade limit of 85 and REQUIRED that the State Department of Education “waive the overall enrollment limits” if these particular charter schools wanted to expand.

Completely gone is the Connecticut State Board of Education’s role in weighing the costs and benefits of allowing these charter schools to expand.

The new law also made permanent what was originally a two-year charter school facility grant program which allowed the state to use state funds to make capital improvements to charter schools,

And the new law also required that, as of July 2010, all “qualified charter school professionals” must go into the State’s Teacher Retirement Pension and Health Insurance System meaning taxpayers will be on the hook for providing charter school teachers with pensions and health benefits after they are vested and retire.  The cost of putting charter school teachers into the State Teacher Retirement System could be significant.  As of 2010, the state’s contribution to the Teacher Retirement System was about $7,600 per teacher, per year.  Adding even 50 charter school teachers would cost the state an additional $380,000 a year or almost $4 million over the next decade.

The net effect is that Achievement First, already the largest charter school provider in Connecticut, has an automatic green light to expand.  Achievement First Hartford, which had 593 students in 2010-2011, will reach 797 by 2012-2013 and will still expand even further in later years.  Achievement First Bridgeport will go from 410 in 2010-2011 to 672 in 2012-2013 and smaller expansions will be taking place at Achievement First Amistad Academy and at Achievement First’s Elm City College Preparatory school.

Oh and finally, in response to Achievement First and ConnCAN’s complaint that the state needs to adopt the “money follow the child” system so they can get extra funds for their programs. It is interesting to note that when it comes to Achievement First Hartford, the City of Hartford, paid $1.5 million to help renovate the old school building Achievement First moved into.   In addition, the City of Hartford pays Achievement First $500 a year for each Hartford student who attends Achievement First Hartford (that is on top of the grant Achievement First gets from the state) and the City of Hartford provided Achievement First with a “one-time payment” of $400,000 to “cover costs associated with the operation of the school”.

As Achievement First has expanded, the cost to the City of Hartford has also gone up.  According to one estimate,Hartford now provides Achievement First with $2.35 million a year.

The story makes one wonder what else Achievement First isn’t telling us.

Of course, as readers will already know, Stefan Pryor, our State’s Education Commissioner, is well aware of all of this information as he helped to create Achievement First and was one of its Directors until he resigned to take on the role of running Connecticut’s public education system.

Let’s Return to the Real Issue: Transparency and Conflicts of Interest

A mini-firestorm has developed surrounding the issue of whether Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, should recuse himself from any Department of Education decisions about Achievement First, the charter school management company, that he helped form and where he has served as a member of its board of directors from its inception in 2003 to 2011 when he resigned immediately prior to being named Education Commissioner.

This is not a question about whether Commissioner Pryor has a legal “conflict of interest”.  It is a question of whether the “appearance of a conflict of interest” is sufficient enough that he should recuse himself because that is the ethical and transparent thing to do.

In response to the concerns I’ve raised over the past few days, some reporters have asked Governor Malloy about his perspective on the issue.  To CTNewsjunkie he calls the conflict of interest accusations “ridiculous” and in a CTMirror article he described the issue as “fantastically, ridiculous.”

In an attempt to resolve the differences of opinion let’s just take a moment to review the facts.

Fact #1:  Connecticut law has a very narrow definition of what is legally a “conflict of interest”.  Basically if a public official or their family would financially benefit then it is a conflict of interest.  Both Commissioner Esty and Commissioner Pryor sought guidance from the State Office and were told that they did not have a conflict of interest.

Fact #2:   Connecticut does not have a legal definition of what would be considered the “appearance of a conflict of interest.”   In states that do have a legal definition it is usually defined as whether a “reasonable person” would think that an official has what appears to be a conflict of interest and therefore has a responsibility to take action to eliminate that appearance.

Fact #3:     As a candidate for governor and as governor, Dannel Malloy has said that ensuring transparency in government is one of his most important agenda items.  On his first day in office, the new governor issued a press release that began with IN FIRST ACT AS GOVERNOR, MALLOY SIGNS THREE EXECUTIVE ORDERS…Orders will help institute fiscal responsibility/honest budgeting, transparency…”

 Fact #4:  Although Commissioner Esty, the head of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, had an ethics ruling saying that he did not have any “legal” conflict of interest; he announced that he felt, as commissioner, he had an obligation to meet a higher standard, that being to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

Esty announced that due to his commitment to do the job right it was “prudent to insure I was in no way seen as making decisions on a company that I’ve had some close relationships with.”  With that he released a list of 26 companies and two environmental organizations which he had a close relationship.

One of the environmental groups was the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Esty had served on the organization’s Board of Education and despite having resigned from their board he included them on the list of entities that he would recuse himself from.

Esty earned high praise from a variety of different organizations and individuals for his decision to eliminate even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

A Hartford Courant editorial called Esty’s action “the principled thing to so” and added “Avoiding conflicts of interests are a must for any commissioner but especially so in the highly volatile and often politicized realm of environmental protection.

The Courant concluded “Good for him for putting all his cards on the table and acting ethically”

When Esty later came under fire for leaving a company off his list, Malloy was his strongest defending saying that if there was any issue at all it was that Esty “should have done it [revealed his connection] out of the box”.

Governor Malloy simply could not have been clearer.  One of his most important commissioners had stepped up and set a new standard for transparency and ethics and that eliminating even the appearance of a conflict of interest required him to recuse himself on any issue related to an environmental group whose board he has served on.

Fact #5:  Connecticut’s new Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, sought advice about whether he had any conflicts of interest under state law.  Ethics correctly told him he did not.

But that was never the issue.  The question is whether Commissioner Pryor has an appearance of a conflict of interest when it comes to his relationship with Achievement First, one of the nation’s largest charter management companies with nine schools here in Connecticut.

Commissioner Pryor was a driving force behind the creation of Achievement First.  Pryor, along with his colleague Dacia Toll, led the team that turned the dream of the Amistad Academy into a reality.

Achievement First grew out of that experience as the vehicle for creating more charter schools.  Pryor joined the Board of Directors of this new company.  His partner on the Amistad School project is now the President and CEO of Achievement First.

As one of Achievement First’s Directors, Stefan Pryor has been a vital part of the organization’s unprecedented growth.  Starting with the Amistad Academy, Achievement First now has 20 schools in Connecticut and New York serving almost 5,400 students. As a result of a “Management Fee” collected from each school, Achievement First collects about $4 million a year.

In 2010, Achievement First’s Board of Directors adopted an aggressive strategic plan to grow Achievement First.  The plan, which is outlined in their 2010 Annual Report, is designed to increase the number of Achievement First charter schools from 20 schools to 35 schools in the next few years.  Instead of serving 5,400 students, Achievement First plans to serve more than 12,000 students. If they utilized the present “Management Fee” system they would be collecting nearly $10 million a year.

Perhaps most importantly, Achievement First notes that when their strategic plan is implemented Achievement First “will serve more students than 95 percent of school districts in the United States”.

As Connecticut’s new Commissioner of Education and the Governor’s point person on education reform, Stefan Pryor now finds himself in the unique position of being able to determine whether Achievement First’s aggressive growth plan will succeed or fail.

Fact #6:  This is not about whether Commissioner Pryor, a well-regarded leader and change agent, should be involved in the great education reform debate of 2012.  This is not about whether Commissioner Pryor should be involved in discussions and decisions about whether Connecticut should allow the creation of more charter schools.  This debate is exclusively about whether there is the appearance of a conflict of interest when it comes to Pryor making decisions about applications from Achievement First.

The answer to that question is of course there is an appearance of a conflict of interest.  In fact, I’d assume that any reasonable person would say not only is there the appearance of a conflict of interest but there is a real conflict of interest.

This year’s education reform debate will most likely see an expansion of charter schools in Connecticut.  Even with that expansion there will be more proposed charter school seats than there are funds to pay for them.  Some charter schools will win approval and others will not.  If Commissioner Pryor plays a major role in who wins and who loses, a cloud will forever hover over those decisions.

Fact #7:  Governor Malloy said he would be the governor who brought transparency to Connecticut.

Governor Malloy applauded one of his star commissioners, Dan Esty, when Esty set a new standard of openness and honesty.  Esty even announced that he would not act on any issue related to an environmental organization whose board he has served on.

And now, when Commissioner Pryor is facing the very same decision that Commissioner Esty faced, Governor Malloy calls the suggestion that Pryor remove the appearance of a conflict of interest by abstaining from getting personally involved in decisions that would impact Achievement First “ridiculous.”

In the real world there is nothing “ridiculous” about asking Commissioner Pryor to recuse himself on this one specific area.  Commissioner Esty did so and was hailed as a champion.  It appears, at this point, that Commissioner Pryor refuses to follow Esty’s lead in any way whatsoever.

If there is something ridiculous going here it is a governor who has claimed his commitment to transparency would applaud one commissioner who strived to be transparent, only to defend another one of his commissioners who is striving not to be transparent.

Stefan Pryor Must Address the Conflict or Appearance of the Conflict of Interest he has with Achievement First, Inc.

Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, has a big problem.

Pryor co-founded the Amistad Academy, the New Haven charter school and served as the Chairman of its Board of Directors for five years.  In turn, the Amistad effort spawned the creation of Achievement First, Inc., the charter school management company that now runs 20 charter schools in Connecticut and New York.

Pryor, while directing Amistad’s Board, was not only a part of the creation and management of Achievement First, but served on its Board of Trustees from 2003 to 2010.

Pryor’s primary partner in the creation of Amistad now serves as the President and CEO of Achievement First.

Late last year, Pryor quietly resigned his Director’s position with Achievement First.

Most importantly, Pryor knows he has a problem.

A weekend article by Brian Lockhart (click for article) reveals that this past October Pryor called Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics to informally discuss whether, as Commissioner, it would be a conflict of interest for him to take action that would directly benefit Amistad Academy, Achievement First or the ten charter schools that Achievement First runs in Connecticut.

Ethics’ staff informed Pryor that, under Connecticut’s narrow conflict law, he had no direct conflict of interest since he had ended his relationship with Achievement First.

The State Department of Education staff quickly followed up in order to get the opinion down on paper and, more recently sought a formal opinion which the Ethics Commission is expected to approve later this month.

While Connecticut law has a very narrow definition of what is considered a direct conflict of interest, it fails to provide any meaningful definition of what creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Last summer, Daniel C. Esty, Malloy’s pick to head the Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection faced these very same issues.

Technically, Esty did not have a “legal” direct conflict of interest because he had ended his relationship with the companies that he had consulted for or the organizations in which he had played a significant role.

But Esty recognized that the public is demanding more transparency and honesty in government and that the appearance of a conflict of interest would undermine his credibility as the leader of his agency.

Esty confronted that concern directly and head on by announcing that he would not get involved in any cases that directly related to 26 companies and 2 environmental organizations that he had worked with over the past five years. As he said, the list includes “companies that were clients of my consulting firm – Esty Environmental Partners – who had the potential to do business or are doing business in Connecticut, and organizations for which I served in recent years on the Board of Directors or other advisory role.”

The Hartford Courant was among those who applauded Commissioner Esty’s decision.

In their July 18, 2011 editorial, the Courant wrote that Esty’s decision to recuse himself from “any matter in which he perceives there’s an actual or potential conflict,” was exactly the type of leaders Connecticut needed.

The Courant went on to say Esty’s action was “the principled thing to do.  Avoiding conflicts of interest are a must for any commissioner, but especially so in the highly volatile and often politicized realm of environmental protection.”

What was particularly important was that among the environmental groups that Esty recused himself from was the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.  Esty had served as a member of the board of directors.

Julie Belaga, a former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as a former Connecticut State Representative and candidate for governor has been a champion on behalf of the environment and a long-time member of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment’s Board of Directors with Esty.  She told WNPR radio thatEsty was doing the right thing because he was avoiding even the thought of a conflict of interest.

The fact is Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s relationship as a Director with Achievement First was far more significant than Esty’s relationship with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

For example, just last year, Achievement First released their 2010 Annual Report that included the news that Achievement First’s new strategic plan called for expanding for its present 20 schools that serve 5,400 student to 35 schools serving over 12,000 in the next few years.  The report goes on to say that with this growth, Achievement First would be larger than 95 percent of the school districts in the country.

As an Achievement First Board member, Stefan Pryor helped create and adopt that strategic plan, a plan that when fully implemented would increase Achievement First’s revenue from $4 million a year in “management fees” to upwards of $10 million a year.

To achieve its goal, it will be critical for Achievement First to expand in Connecticut.

Now Pryor, a founder and long time member of Achievement First’s Board of Trustees finds himself in the unique position of being able to determine whether that aggressive growth plan will succeed or fail.

Not only is that the appearance of a conflict of interest, but any reasonable person would recognize it as a direct conflict of interest.

At the very least, Commissioner Stefan Pryor must do what Commissioner Dan Esty did and recuse himself from getting involved in any decisions that would benefit Achievement First Inc.