Connecticut: The Land of Double Standards?

The Issue:  Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and his appearance of a conflict of interest due to his long-standing relationship with Achievement First, the Charter School Management company.

At 1:00 p.m. today the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board will hold a meeting in which they will approve a staff recommendation that although Commissioner Pryor helped create Achievement First and served as one of its Directors until he recently resigned to take the Education Commissioner’s position, he does not have a conflict of interest under state law because he does not have a financial relationship with Achievement First.

The staff of the Office of State Ethics is correct in their interpretation of the law.

This is not about whether Commissioner Pryor has a “legal” conflict of interest under state law.

Nor is it about whether Stefan Pryor is a good choice to lead the Department of Education and serve as Governor Malloy’s point person on education reform.

This is about whether his close relationship with Achievement First creates the appearance of a conflict of interest and whether due to the appearance it would be best for him,the state and Connecticut’s education system if he recused himself – that is abstained – from getting directly involved in decisions that would benefit the organization that he worked so hard to develop and expand.

It is not necessarily a bad thing to have an appearance of a conflict of interest but in a fair, open and transparent system of government it is incumbent on people to be honest and forthcoming about whether a reasonable person would think that their previous relationships might cloud their decision-making on a particular topic.

Imagine the following scenario:

A long-time member of the Hartford Hospital Board of Directors is appointed to serve as the Commissioner of Public Health which oversees the Office of Health Care Access (OCHA).  OHCA’s job is to review and then approve or reject every hospitals’ request to expand, purchase major equipment or purchase or partner with other hospitals in the state.

As the new commissioner, this person would be directly responsible for reviewing and recommending which applications move forward to be approved or rejected.

Although the new commissioner of public health was not paid to serve on the Hartford Hospital Board of Directors, he or she nonetheless spent years on that board and had recently even voted to authorize Hartford Hospital to go to OHCA and request permission to purchase major pieces of equipment as well as initiate plans to purchase or partner with other hospitals in Connecticut.  In fact, those plans call for almost doubling the number of hospitals under Hartford Hospital’s control so that they could triple the number of patients they serve.

What would Connecticut’s other hospitals say when they knew this former member of the Hartford Hospital Board of Directors would be in a unique position to help Hartford Hospital perhaps at the expense of Connecticut’s other hospitals.

Connecticut law says that since this new commissioner does not have a direct “financial interest” in Hartford Hospital so that he or she does not have a “legal” conflict of interest.

But a reasonable person would say that there is absolutely no doubt that the former director turned commissioner is facing an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Connecticut’s hospitals, elected officials, advocates and the media would all be highlighting the problem and calling upon the new commissioner of public health to recuse himself from decisions that directly impact Hartford Hospital.

They would all be pointing out that there are a lot of other things the commissioner of public health can and should be doing but that using his or her role to make decisions that help Hartford Hospital should not be one of them.

This made up scenario is exactly the situation facing Stefan Pryor, Connecticut’s Commission of Education.

It is NOT about whether he should be commissioner.  It is NOT about whether he has a “legal” conflict of interest.  It is about doing what is right and fair for everyone involved in the future of Connecticut’s system of public education.

Stefan Pryor should use today’s ethics decision to stand up and show Connecticut that as the state’s Commissioner of Education he will hold himself and his agency to a higher standard of fairness.

Anything short of that and he undermines his own credibility and the role he can play in putting together the best education reform policies for Connecticut.

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.

Wait, You are Against Binding Arbitration? Really?

[The education reform issues have attracted so much traffic that in the coming week I’ll continue Wait, What? but will create a parallel blog that will focus exclusively on education reform issues – suggestions for a name are welcome]

Binding Arbitration:  The process by which the parties to a dispute submit their differences to the judgment of an impartial person or group appointed by mutual consent or statutory provision.

Some “education reformers” are calling for an end to the teacher seniority system or want to “reform tenure as we know it,” but actively opposing binding arbitration?

That’s a new one for me.

Here in Connecticut it’s been a while since we’ve heard legitimate advocacy groups call for an end to binding arbitration.

Binding arbitration has been universally recognized as an appropriate and successful way to resolve contract disputes without strikes or lockouts.  It’s a system that ensures that, even if there is a contract dispute, government services, including schools, will continue to function.

More than 36 years ago, Connecticut adopted a system of binding arbitration for municipal employees.  Binding arbitration was then expanded in 1979 to cover all teachers and in 1986, with a Democratic Governor and the Republicans in control of both chambers of the General Assembly, binding arbitration was extended to cover state employees.

As a freshman state legislator I remember watching as the great Otto Neumann of the 62nd House District, a respected, common-sense Republican, rose to address the House Chamber as to why Republicans and Democrats had come together to institute a fair arbitration system that would ensure that the public received the services it was entitled to even in the face of contract disagreements between the state and its unions.

Negotiation, mediation and if absolutely necessary, arbitration would put an end to public employee strikes.  Children would return to classes at the beginning of the school year no matter what.  Just look around at some other states to see the sad alternative.

While some have talked about “tinkering” with the actual arbitration process, it has been widely recognized as a huge success.

The Connecticut Legislature’s bi-partisan Program Review & Investigations Committee conducted a major study about the impact of binding arbitration and released their report in 2006.

The investigation found that binding arbitration was used in about 10 percent of teacher contracts and only 4 percent of the time in municipal employee contracts.

Over the years, when it came to salary increases, the last best offers for towns and unions were about 1% apart.  In the time period studies these differences actually ranged from 0.7 percent to 1.2 percent.

As for arbitration awards for teacher contracts, arbitrators came down on the side of the boards of education and teachers at about the same rate.  Teacher unions were a bit more successful when it came to salary increases while towns were more successful when it came it came to the important contract language.

The final report concluded that “Overall, the committee found no evidence that arbitration has driven up costs.  For the period analyzed, higher general wage increases were not found in arbitration awards in comparison to negotiated contracts.”

With that as the background I was really surprised to find that when the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) calls for an end to the seniority system which they say requires districts to lay off teachers based solely on seniority without regard to any factors of job performance” they go on to demand that binding arbitration be reformed “to ensure that future collective bargaining agreements better account for the interests of children.”

Unfortunately, there appears to be no reference as to what ConnCAN means when it comes to “reforming binding arbitration.”

However we can get a better sense of what is meant when we look to ConnCAN’s sister organization RI-CAN.  As their website explains, RI-CAN is part of “50CAN: The 50 State Campaign for Achievement Now, which aims to bring ConnCAN-style campaigns and ConnCAN-style success to states across the country.”

Readers may recall that in 2005 a group of Achievement First’s Directors set up ConnCAN and the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, Inc., ConnCAN serves as the “education” arm of the operation while the second company spent the next five years paying over half a million dollars to lobby Connecticut’s executive and legislative branches of government.  It wasn’t until last year that ConnCAN started paying the bill for the lobbyists, which, by that time had reached $95,000 a-year.

Meanwhile, one of the Achievement First/ConnCAN directors formed yet another group called 50CAN which “was created to bring this proven model [ConnCAN] to new states, starting with Rhode Island, Minnesota, New York and Maryland and reaching half the country by 2015.  One will note that 50CAN’s organizing plan tracks nicely with Achievement First’s strategic plan.

So two years ago, RI-CAN was formed in Rhode Island to do what ConnCAN has been doing in Connecticut.

RI-CAN’s Executive Director Maryellen Butke, who is the equivalent to Patrick Riccards, ConnCAN’s new Executive Director here in Connecticut, is far clearer about how the CAN organization sees binding arbitration.

Despite the fact that binding arbitration has been recognized as a great success, RI-CAN’s Butke recently said that “Binding arbitration would be a disaster for students, localities”

In a commentary piece in the Providence Journal last June she stakes out RI-CAN’s position saying “Rhode Island has made great leaps forward in the past few years in the effort to transform our schools. Binding arbitration would be a costly step backwards that would reverse much of the progress we have made. Our message to the General Assembly is simple: Do what’s best for kids and reject binding arbitration.”

In addition, a group of anti-union activists created the Rhode Island Coalition against Binding Arbitration last summer with RI-CAN as its first member organization.

In Connecticut ConnCAN may call it “reforming” binding arbitration; in Rhode Island they call it a disaster and are lobbying against it.

It makes me wonder what some of ConnCAN’s Advisory Board Members would say.

Are they opposed to binding arbitration.  Do they know they are on the advisory board to a group that does?

If you see any of the following individuals ask them whether they too, as advisers to ConnCAN, oppose binding arbitration:

Lorraine M. Aronson (Former Vice President and CFO, University of Connecticut and Former Connecticut Deputy Commissioner of Education)

Timothy Bannon (Former Chief of Staff for Governor Dannel Malloy)

William J. Cibes (Former Chancellor, Connecticut State University System and Former Secretary, Office of Policy and Management)

William Ginsberg (President and CEO, Community Foundation for Greater New Haven)

Janice M. Gruendel, Ph.D., M.Ed. (Deputy Commissioner, Department of Children and Families)

Dr. Richard C. Levin (President, Yale University)

Dr. Julia M. McNamara (President, Albertus Magnus College)

Anthony P. Rescigno (President, Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce)

Dr. Theodore Sergi (Former Connecticut State Commissioner of Education)

Allan B. Taylor (Chairman, Connecticut State Board of Education)

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.

Education Reform Must Begin with Honesty – Wrapping up the first week of Education Reform

ConnCAN is Achievement First and Stefan Pryor has been one of Achievement First’s Strongest Voices:

[Charter school parents; please understand that I do believe your children are receiving a good education and they deserve nothing less.  This discussion is about the need for honesty and transparency as Connecticut works to reform its education system so that all the state’s children can receive a quality education].

Over the last few day’s I’ve laid out the irrefutable evidence that the guiding hands that created and manage Achievement First, Inc., the charter school management company, are the same hands that created and coordinate the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, Inc (ConnCAN) and the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, Inc (the entity that paid more than half a million dollars to lobby for Achievement First and ConnCAN’s agenda).

And now, whether by design or by luck, one of the most important players in this whole Achievement First saga has been named Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education.

There is no doubt that Stefan Pryor is a true advocate for education reform and an unapologetic fan of charter schools.  Pryor helped create the Amistad Academy and Achievement First was the organizational and corporate vehicle that was used to move Amistad from a dream to a reality.

One of Pryor’s primary partners in that effort is now President and CEO of Achievement First.  Achievement First quickly moved beyond simply managing the Amistad Academy.  Over the past seven years it has created 19 Achievement First charter schools with about 5,400 students in Connecticut and New York.

In 2010, Achievement First’s Board of Directors developed a strategic plan that seeks to expand to 35 schools with more than 12,000 children.  As their plan proudly notes, Achievement First would then be larger than 95 percent of the school districts in the nation and would be the leading entity in the charter schools movement.

Throughout this entire period, Stefan Pryor served as a member of Achievement First’s Board of Directors.  It was only recently that Pryor decided to resign his position as a Director at Achievement First.

And now, as Commissioner of Education in Connecticut, his decisions will be pivotal in determining whether Achievement First’s aggressive agenda will succeed or fail.

Meanwhile, Achievement First, ConnCAN and the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, Inc have consistently claimed that more public money should go to charter schools and there should be more charter schools.  Their primary argument is that students at charter schools do better on mastery tests.

As Connecticut seeks to overhaul its education system so that all children have access to a quality education it is important to determine whether charter schools are the primary reason students score higher or whether charter schools score higher because they are “creaming off the highest performing students” in urban school districts.

We know that the factors that lead to lower standardized test scores are poverty, language barriers and lack of parent or guardian involvement.

The data could not be more clear.  Achievement First’s schools are made up of less poor students and students who don’t have language barriers that limit their ability to learn.  And while I’ve never seen the statistics, I can certainly attest to the fact that charter school parents are among the most engaged parents there are.

While charter schools begin with a lottery, that lottery process and the counseling the follows over the next couple of years has created, perhaps unintentionally, charter schools whose students would be the highest academic performing students wherever they went to school.

Many charter schools are producing students who score higher on standardized tests.  However, one reason charter schools do better is that they are attracting many of the brightest students in their city.  That’s great for those students; the challenge is how to produce a quality education for the 90% who are left in the district’s public schools.

Finally, many of those who have supported the creation of charter schools, including Connecticut’s new Education Commissioner, have claimed that charter schools would be an important mechanism for reducing racial isolation in Connecticut.

Instead the problem of racial isolation has increased not decreased at Achievement First schools and at a number of other charter schools.

In Bridgeport, where the public school body is 91.4% minority; Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy is 98.7% minority.

In Hartford, where the public school body is 92.6% minority; Achievement First’s Hartford Academy is 99.5% minority.

In New Haven, where the public school body is 86.9% minority; Achievement First’s Amistad Academy is 98.1% minority and Achievement First’s Elm City Prep is 98.9% minority.

Yet, there are charter schools that are proving that you can reduce racial isolation.  The Common Ground School in New Haven has created a more racially diverse learning environment.  The number of minorities in that school is 81.9% minority compared to the City’s 86.9% minority student body.

2012 is the year of Education Reform in Connecticut and that is good news for all students and parents.

However, to find consensus – honesty and transparency and compromise – will be needed by one and all.

The underlying problem is that the present environment for reform is clouded, in part, by the fact that Achievement First has not been honest about its relationship with ConnCAN and its ongoing effort to use other organizations to lobby for its goals.

And the Achievement First issue becomes far more complex and serious because in the  very center of the education reform debate is now a Commissioner of Education who has been part of Achievement First since it was created and now faces what is certainly a direct conflict of interest or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

With honesty and transparency lacking, consensus around appropriate reforms will be that much harder to find.

Education Reform – How to Win Friends the Old Fashion Way: Donate Campaign Money

As the Governor and Legislature open the debate on “education reform” a wide variety of interest groups will work to influence the process.

The goal of my blog post yesterday was to ensure that participants and observers of the reform debate recognize the strong Connecticut between Achievement First (the Charter Management company, ConnCAN and Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.

There will be plenty of time to discuss the merits of the various proposals but the single most important thing I’ve learned about politics and government is the importance of understanding who the players are.

Then and only then can one judge whether proposals are being put forward to benefit the “common good” or whether they are designed to support one specific participant or another.

As we enter the debate, my goal was to ensure that those of us observing the process from outside understand that Achievement First, Inc., with its 19 schools in Connecticut and New York has spent years working to prepare for this year’s Great “Education Reform” Debate.

Working on its own and through its various entities, Achievement First has successfully positioning itself so that it can be a major proponent and spokesperson for “education reform”, as well as, the voice for Connecticut’s charter schools and an aggressive advocate for getting more state resources for their operation.

Whether this is good or bad is yet to be determined.

What is clear is that Achievement First has made a significant effort.

Yesterday’s blog focused on the fact that since 2004, The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, Inc (ConnCAN) and its relatively unknown political advocacy organization, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy, Inc. have worked to frame the debate.  Together they have paid one of Connecticut’s leading lobby firms about $630,000 to influence public policy.  As noted, the source of that money is unknown.

In addition, over the years ConnCAN has conducted a variety of public relations and advertising campaigns to build support for “education reform”

With this post, I’d like to add that Achievement First, ConnCAN and the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy have also recognized that the most sophisticated organizations understand that a successful campaign cannot overlook the importance of providing campaign contributions to the “right” people.

Some organizations and people give money in support of the politicians who support them. (“I.e. thank you for all you have done and all you will be doing for us in the future.”)

Some give money to win over friends.  (“I.e. please remember that we are an important constituency and if you pay attention to us we’ll pay attention to you.”)

And some give money to try to neutralize opposition. (“I.e. please accept these donations.  We hope you will take the time to review our issues and if you can’t be supportive we hope that you will remain quiet or soften your opposition when our issue comes up for a vote).

In political terms it’s often called the “American Way” of doing things.

This observation, in turn, brings us back to Achievement First and the various tactics that they have utilized over the years to build support for their cause.

Take for example the case study of the Achievement First/ConnCAN fundraiser for Speaker of the House Chris Donovan:

The invitation was for a breakfast fundraiser with the Democratic Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives Christopher Donovan. Invited guests were selected members of the Achievement First Board of Directors, the Amistad Board of Directors, the Bridgeport First Board of Directors, the ConnCAN Board of Directors and those associated with  the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy (ConnCAN’s sister organization that was paying the tab, until this year, to retain one the Capitol’s best lobbyists).

The expected donation was $1,000 per person and the checks made out to the “Speaker’s Leadership Committee” (A political action committee that Speaker Donovan and the Democratic leadership used to help elect Democrats to the House of Representatives).

The event was at the Greenwich home of Alex Troy.  Alex Troy served as a member of the Achievement First Board of Directors, as Chairman of the Amistad Academy Board of Directors, as President and Secretary of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) and as Co-founder and Treasurer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy (ConnCAN’s sister organization).

In addition to Troy, participants included:

Jonathan Sackler, who along with his wife, donated $2,000.   Sackler has served as a member of the Achievement First Board of Directors, the ConnCAN Board of Directors (including serving as its Chair) and founded, along with Alex Troy, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Advocacy.

Andrew Boas who donated $1,000.  Boas has served on the Achievement First Board of Directors and the ConnCAN Board of Directors.

Brian Olson, who along with his wife, donated $2,000.  Olson has served on the ConnCAN Board of Directors (including serving as its Chair).

John Irwin, who along with his wife, donated $2.000.  Irwin has been a member of the ConnCAN Board of Directors

Melinda Hamilton who donated $1,000.  Hamilton has served as a member of the Amistad Academy Board of Directors

Sarah Greenhill who donated $1,000.  Greenhill has served as a member of the ConnCAN Board of Directors.

Stephen Anbinder who donated $1,000.  Anbinder has served on the Achievement First Board of Directors (including serving as its Treasurer).

Robert Scinto who donated $1,000.  Scinto has served on the Achievement First Bridgeport Board of Directors

And at least four other individuals  who together donated at least $2,000 and who have served on the Achievement First Board of Directors, the Amistad Board of Directors and the ConnCAN Board of Directors.

Speaker Donovan left the September 17, 2008 fundraiser with a pocket full of checks.

Those associated with Achievement First and its related organizations had an opportunity to share their concerns with the one legislator who had the power to derail the issues that ConnCAN and the charter school management company wanted to see addressed.

All in all, it was a good morning for everyone involved.

In the end, this information is not so much about who is right or who is wrong but it certainly begins the process of explaining who is who in this upcoming education reform debate.

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.