State ed chief seeks to avoid charter school bias questions
Gary Peluchette worries new state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor's extensive background as founder of an influential charter school organization gives those institutions an advantage as the state pursues education reforms.
"The best commissioner is someone who has come up through the ranks of public education, not privately funded, non-union charter schools," said Peluchette, president of the Bridgeport Education Association.
That fear -- that the state's already stressed education resources will wind up, under Pryor, spent on more alternative school models -- is not uncommon among public school unions.
Pryor, in interviews, has been careful not to express favoritism, saying he supports effective schools, from conventional facilities to charter academies.
Pryor has also quietly been working with the Office of State Ethics to shield himself against any criticism that future decisions might favor two organizations with which he had been closely associated -- New Haven-based Amistad Academy and Achievement First, which manages Amistad and nearly two dozen other charter schools in Connecticut and New York.
Pryor co-founded Amistad in 1998, serving as board chairman until 2003. He was then a member of Achievement First's board, resigning just before his appointment as commissioner. He said his work was voluntary and not compensated.
On Oct. 26, according to ethics office records, Pryor phoned that agency for informal advice on whether he was under state law allowed to take official action that would affect Amistad and Achievement First.
In both cases, the ethics staff concluded there was no conflict, according to Carol Carson, executive director of ethics, because Pryor is not currently associated with Amistad or Achievement First.
Just to be certain, on Dec. 5 Pryor sent a letter seeking a formal opinion from the Citizen's Ethics Advisory Board. The matter has been scheduled for the board's Jan. 26 meeting, Carson said.
Mark Linabury, an education department spokesman, said Pryor was acting out of an "excess of caution." Carson said she expects the board's ruling will support her staff's initial conclusions.
For some skeptics it will likely not be enough. Peluchette said regardless there will still be an appearance of a conflict.
"I think he's trying to put himself above it all. He says, 'I sought an opinion, they said it's okay,' " Pelluchette said.
Jonathan Pelto, an ex-Democratic lawmaker and current political commentator, has also been raising questions about Pryor's relationships in columns and on his blog, "Wait, What?" He wrote that at the same time Achievement First is pursuing aggressive expansion plans, one of its greatest champions "suddenly shows up to not only sit at the head of the table but to oversee the entire education reform debate."
Another top official in the Malloy administration, Dan Esty, head of the Department of Energy and Environment Protection, voluntarily recused himself from doing business with 26 entities with which he had a financial or other relationship in the five years prior to his hire.
Would Pryor make such a recusal?
Linabury said, "We will make a determination on appropriate procedures in accordance with the (ethics) decision."
Carson said while the ethics board on Jan. 26 will review the initial draft opinions regarding Pryor, the body "is generally willing to hear from anyone who attends the meeting who wants to address a matter before the board prior to their vote ... But it is not a hearing, per se."
Key legislators who set both education and ethics policy believe Pryor has done as much as should be expected.
"It isn't any secret he has been involved (with charter school organizations)," Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, an education committee cochairman, said. "Previously, we've had commissioners tied to public education. ... So it works both ways. He just brings another base of experience to the table."
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, whose government administration and elections commission oversees ethics policies, applauded Pryor's integrity for proactively approaching the ethics office.
"To have to cut out that entire area of (charter school) expertise does not serve the interests of citizens very well," she said. "I can't imagine that making a lot of sense."
Eric Bailey with the American Federation of Teachers, said Pryor's charter school background has given the union pause, but the commissioner has made an effort to meet with all stakeholders regularly.
"You can't look at that connection with Achievement First, Amistad and not think, 'Clearly he's got a place in his heart for charter schools,' " Bailey said. "But we said at the time and continue to say we'll give him the benefit of the doubt."