Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor won’t stay for second term

By Mary E. O’Leary, New Haven Register
POSTED: 08/18/14, 12:35 PM EDT

Malloy, in a statement, said he learned about Pryor’s intentions Monday from the commissioner, who is actively seeking new professional opportunities.

“Commissioner Pryor has worked hard and well on behalf of Connecticut students,” Malloy said in the statement. “In the three years he’s led the department, we’ve taken tremendous steps forward to improve education, with a particular focus on the districts that have long needed the most help. We needed someone who could act as a change agent, and Stefan fulfilled that role admirably. And we’re seeing strong results. Graduation rates have gone up each of the last four years, national high school tests show that Connecticut students are leading among participating states in reading and math, and that we are making real progress in closing the achievement gap.”

Pryor officially said he would be leaving by the end of Malloy’s first term in January, but others said it could be as soon as a few weeks.

The governor is seeking a second term and is in an election fight with Republican candidate Tom Foley.

The Common Core Standards, which were approved by the state board long before Pryor became commissioner, have proven to be controversial as the state slows down implementation.

Pryor recently was criticized for the board not knowing that the leader of FUSE (Family Urban Schools of Excellence), Michael M. Sharpe, which was overseeing multiple charter schools, had served time for fraud and embezzlement.

Sharpe was fired from his positions, including as leader of the Booker T. Academy in New Haven and the board has expanded background checks at charter schools.

Opponents of charter schools also were skeptical of Pryor’s connection to charter schools, as he helped found and lead Achievement First.

New teacher evaluations, which also are being reworked, were put together under Pryor.

Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, wished Pryor well, but said the focus of the CEA is on a future “that underscores a thorough examination of the non-proven and unscientific reliance on standardized testing for students and teachers,” a sore point in evaluating teachers and as part of the Common Core.

A coalition of unions, led by AFT-Connecticut, already has asked that education commissioners have at least the experience of a school superintendent, a reference to Pryor, who did not have professional education certification.

Cohen, in her statement, said the CEA wants establishment of “best practices as determined by the practicing and certified professional educator.” She said this is an opportunity to find a replacement “with extensive public education boots-on-the-ground experience.”

Cohen said the CEA, which is the largest education group in the state, has a continuing goal of a high-quality education for all students.

The union president said they look forward to working with someone who “exemplifies a realistic and pragmatic — as well as visionary — voice for teachers, parents and students. Connecticut’s teachers, with their unparalleled classroom perspective and their irreplaceable voice in public education policy making, must be major players in every aspect of the determination of the future of public education.”

A third-party challenger to Malloy, Jonathan Pelto, has concentrated on school reform in his campaign and sees those implemented by Malloy as the “corporatization” of education.

Pelto, in a statement, said Pryor’s leaving is “long overdue,” calling it “great news for Connecticut’s public school students, parents, teachers and taxpayers.”

Pelto feels Pryor and his supporters “have done immeasurable harm to Connecticut’s public education system.” He said Pryor’s departure “is a small step in the right direction” and called Malloy’s support for the reform policies “a political disaster.”

Pryor did have his supporters, among them the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which said Pryor’s departure will be a loss for Connecticut.

“During his tenure, Connecticut became a beacon for public education reform by expanding access to more high quality public charter schools, increasing funding for turning around perennially failing schools and districts, all while creating a climate of greater accountability for student learning,” network Interim President Kyle Rosenkrabs and Connecticut President Jeremiah Grace said in a statement.

It said the work of closing the achievement gap goes on, with 4,200 students on charter school wait lists and “over 65,000 kids trapped in failing schools that will continue to need the state’s leadership.” The network represents some 200 charter schools in New York and Connecticut.

Pryor, in his statement, called his nearly three years in office “fulfilling.”

“It’s been a true honor to serve this governor, the State Board of Education, and the people of Connecticut as Commissioner of Education,” Pryor said in the statement.

“Despite the admittedly long hours and the tremendous challenges, I have enjoyed this job thoroughly. We have accomplished a lot over nearly three years. The work has not always been easy but, start to finish and top to bottom, it has been extraordinarily worthwhile. I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made together. Thanks to the great work of superintendents, principals, teachers, local boards, parents and advocates, we’ve laid the groundwork for Connecticut’s continuing success in providing a high-quality education to all of our young people – regardless of income or zip code,” Pryor’s statement said.

Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer at the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, or ConnCAN, said supporters of better education opportunities are “losing a champion” with Pryor’s departure.

“With only one in three African American, Hispanic, and low-income students able to read at grade level by the third grade, not enough was being done to prepare students for college and a good career. Commissioner Pryor took decisive action to begin improving those outcomes,” she said in a statement.

Alexander said Pryor worked to get better results in the lowest-performing school, while holding “educators accountable for their job performance and (to) support those educators who deliver for children.”

She said he did that by increasing the number of public school options and raising standards for all children.

Alexander warned those who think that this is the “end of reform.”

“They couldn’t be more wrong. Improving education for our kids is about more than one person, it’s about the thousands of students who deserve a brighter future that starts with a great public education. We urge the next governor to appoint a Commissioner of Education who will continue efforts to improve public education in our state,” she said in the statement.

The CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, which represents education policy experts at the state, said they had their differences with Pryor, but they praised him for his dedication.