AP: Privatization an issue in Conn. education bill

By Susan Haigh

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy speaks at a news conference at the Capitol in Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011.

Jessica Hill, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

HARTFORD, Conn. — The prospect of greater privatization of Connecticut schools has emerged as a hurdle in closed-door negotiations over Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposals to overhaul public education.

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr. told the Associated Press this week that Malloy's proposal to give the state's education commissioner the discretion to allow private companies to run certain low-performing schools "continues to be one of the many ongoing issues" still being discussed in the closed-door talks, even though language to that effect was stripped from the governor's original bill last month. Williams said he has serious concerns about the prospect of state money being spent to "enrich private vendors" instead of benefiting students.

"It's a critical discussion that's going on across the country: How do we define public education?" he said. "Is public education truly public? Is it run and accountable at the local level with input from parents in the community, or is it turned over to private companies where, as time goes by, accountability and local input disappears?"

Lawmakers and the governor are facing a May 9 deadline, which is when the regular legislative session is scheduled to adjourn.

Malloy's original, wide-ranging education overhaul bill included a "commissioner's network" initiative — a contentious proposal among teacher unions and some legislators — that gave the state's new education commissioner broad authority to step in and operate the struggling schools, bypassing union contracts, as well as the ability "to designate any other entity to operate the commissioner's network school."

Commissioner Stefan Pryor has previously served on the board of Achievement First, a private nonprofit network of charter schools in Connecticut and New York.

Pryor hired Jonathan Gyurko, a senior vice president of Leeds Global Partners, a public policy arm of Leeds Equity Partners of New York City, to help draft Malloy's legislation. According to Leeds Equity's website, the firm's investments focus on the "knowledge industry," including companies that provide pre-K and K-12 education. The Connecticut Post first reported that Gyurko was hired through the State Education Resource Center, a nonprofit agency primarily funded by the State Department of Education, in a no-bid contract for $195,000.

The executive director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group recently filed a state whistleblower complaint, accusing Malloy, through Pryor, of violating state procurement and bidding policies by hiring Gyurko.

The Department of Education didn't immediately respond to a list of questions from the AP about Gyurko's hiring and related issues.

Various organizations are pushing Williams and other lawmakers during these final days of the legislative session to have the commissioner's network language reinserted into the bill. ConnCAN, an education reform advocacy group that supports charter schools, argues that Malloy's commissioner's network isn't radical. The group said other states, including Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee, have adopted similar proposals that are larger in scope.

"Operating our lowest-performing schools in the same ways as we do now, with the same contracts, the same expectations and the same structures is a recipe for guaranteed continued failure," ConnCAN CEO Patrick Riccards wrote in a recent memo.

In a news conference Thursday, members of the legislature's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus said they support restoring the commissioner's authority to reconstitute a low-performing school and make it a state or local charter school. However, they don't want the schools placed under control of a private for-profit entity.

"''There had been a lot of discussion about privatization and takeover of schools. We currently allow for our schools to be taken over with the models that are in existing law," said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven. "We simply say we'd continue to do so."

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