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Pryor plans to step down as state education commissioner

Published 6:59 am, Tuesday, August 19, 2014

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  • Stefan Pryor, the controversial state Department of Education commissioner since September of 2011, announced that he will not be seeking a second term. Photo: Ned Gerard / Connecticut Post

    Stefan Pryor, the controversial state Department of Education commissioner since September of 2011, announced that he will not be seeking a second term.

    Photo: Ned Gerard

 

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The controversial state Department of Education commissioner who led Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's school reform effort is stepping down just as Malloy's re-election campaign gears up for November.

The governor's office announced Monday that Stefan Pryor is looking for a new job and will not seek a second term, which would coincide with a new term for Malloy if he is re-elected.

Pryor's three-year tenure was marked by major changes to student testing and teacher evaluations designed to narrow what is considered the nation's largest student achievement gap. But the breakneck pace of the changes turned off many parents and educators and loomed as an election issue.

Tom Foley, the governor's Republican opponent, declined to comment Monday on the announcement. Others had plenty to say.

State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who lost the Republican primary to Foley, has been calling for Pryor's resignation for months. On Monday, he called Pryor a political liability.

"The governor is trying to save face with public school teachers, who he's insulted and disrespected for almost three-and-a-half years," McKinney said.

The impending departure was also celebrated by Jonathan Pelto --a petition candidate for governor -- as great news and long overdue.

Pelto said Pryor and his team were "anti-teacher, pro-standardized testing, privatization zealots" who have "done immeasurable harm to Connecticut's public education system."

"When it comes to actually supporting Connecticut's public schools, Malloy's true intentions remain unknown, but Pryor's departure is a small step in the right direction," Pelto said.

Others predict Pryor's departure won't turn back the clock on school reform.

Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition of Achievement Now, called Pryor a tireless advocate for Connecticut students but said "improving education for our kids is about more than one person."

Malloy officials made no mention of the governor's re-election campaign in their announcement. Instead they called Pryor a much-needed change agent.

"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," Malloy said. During Pryor's tenure, graduation rates rose and Connecticut's 12th grade reading and math scores were deemed tops in the nation.

Pryor, in a written statement, said he thoroughly enjoyed the job.

"The work has not always been easy, but start to finish and top to bottom, it has been extraordinarily worthwhile," he said.

Malloy named Pryor his education commissioner in the fall of 2011, picking then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker's deputy mayor for economic development to help shape an ambitious education reform plan.

Until then, Pryor had spent most of his time on economic development issues. But in the mid-1990s, when he was a law student at Yale University, he helped start Amistad Academy, one of the state's first and most successful charter schools.

One of his first challenges as commissioner was to look after the state takeover of the Bridgeport school board, which occurred months before his arrival. It was Pryor who convinced Paul Vallas, a nationally known education reform figure, to come to Bridgeport for what turned out to be a tumultuous two-year stay.

The charter school connection was recently called into question when it was learned Family Urban Schools of Excellence, a private charter school management firm that had been given millions of dollars in state money to run schools in Hartford and Bridgeport, was operated by a convicted felon who lied about having a doctoral degree. A federal investigation is underway into that firm's finances and hiring practices.

The state has also responded with new rules for charter school operators.

State Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislative education committee, said Pryor's job was to take the governor's vision and implement it.

"That's what he did his level best to do," Fleischmann said. "Our curricular standards in Connecticut were outdated and it made sense to join the 48 states looking for new standards that are going to move Connecticut students farther ahead."

Pryor also was accessible, helpful, honest and always willing to explore alternative solutions, said Danbury Schools Superintendent Salvatore Pascarella, co-chairman of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents.

"Under his leadership, increased resources and greater opportunities were provided to the students in our urban settings," Pascarella said.

McKinney, however, said it was a major mistake to include high performing school districts in the sweeping reforms.

"Now we have parents, teachers and administrators across the state saying let's scrap Common Core and start over," McKinney said.

Foley told the Hearst Connecticut Media editorial board earlier this month that he too thought towns with successful schools districts should be exempt from Common Core requirements and tests.

State Sen. Antonietta Boucher, R-Wilton, ranking member of the Education Committee, said Pryor came into the position with strong edicts, if not orders, to push education reforms that ended up angering teachers.

The teacher evaluation system, besides factoring in student test scores, was deemed by many to be too complicated and time consuming. The Common Core, meanwhile, was rolled out even as teachers were still learning to master the new system. Eventually, both efforts were slowed down.

"Whether (Pryor's impending departure) placates teachers remains to be seen," Boucher said. "I think they will see through the smoke screen."

Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said although it seemed the commissioner was losing trust among teacher and the education community, he didn't see Pryor as someone who had a hidden agenda to replace public education with private concerns.

"I believe that the end goal of improving public education -- our goal and his -- matched," Waxenberg said. "It was how to get there where there were disagreements and issues."

Even so, CEA President Sheila Cohen said her members are ready for a new day and called for the next commissioner to be one with extensive public education boots-on-the-ground experience.

Pryor's announcement comes on the day before Pryor was to address school superintendents around the state for an annual back to school meeting Tuesday.