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."
Holder-Winfield said he doesn't have a problem with charter schools as they currently exist.
"They've proven to work effectively, at least in this state," he said.
The issue of expanded privatization of Connecticut schools came up before Malloy proposed creating the network. Sharon Palmer, president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said union officials in January asked the Malloy administration for a list of companies that might be considered to take over underperforming schools. She said they've asked repeatedly for that list but haven't yet received it. She said the unions wanted to look into the firms' success rates, which they contend have been questionable.
"We'd like to know who they are," Palmer said. "We don't know who they are. Nobody knows who they are."
Palmer said the administration also hasn't provided the unions with the list of the schools that would be considered underperforming.
"There's got to be more transparency. More has to be done in the light of day than what's being done now," she said.
Mary Loftus Levin, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said teachers would much prefer to be part of a collaborate process to come up with the turnaround plans in Malloy's legislation and improve individual schools. She said she doesn't believe that bringing in a private entity to run a struggling school helps democracy or the needy students.
"Would you go into Avon or Greenwich to do this?" she asked, mentioning two of Connecticut's wealthiest towns. "I don't think we should be taking advantage of underserved communities. I think they need to be part of the solution."
Associated Press writer Shannon Young contributed to this report.