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 http://www.conncan.org/ and then http://www.ri-can.org/

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.