Stefan Pryor To Be State Commissioner Of Education
Malloy's Choice Of Charter School Advocate Seen As Fresh Perspective
By Rick Green
September 07, 2011
If Gov. Dannel Malloy wanted to show he's serious about changing how we run public schools, Stefan Pryor is a powerful hint of what's to come.
The man who will be named Wednesday as the next commissioner of education isn't a teacher or an education bureaucrat. He's a champion of charter schools, which are often viewed by teacher unions as an arch-enemy of public education. Much of his record consists of wading into complicated problems, beginning with failing schools in New Haven.
Pryor, who is 39, began his public life as a co-founder of the state's leading charter school, the Amistad Academy. Since then, Pryor, whose parents were teachers, has forged a distinctive career in public administration from New Haven to New York to Newark — but he's never run a classroom, let alone a school district.
He very well could be exactly what Connecticut needs: a fresh perspective that isn't burdened by the way we've always done things.
Pryor comes to a state that once led the nation in public education but in recent years has slipped, both in performance and in innovation. He will take over a sleepy department burdened by bureaucracy and a lack of strong leadership. He returns to a state that spends more per student than nearly any other but has the worst achievement gap in the land. He will also be expected to lead efforts to reform how we pay for public schools.
As an outsider in the spirit of former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Pryor must very quickly show that he knows how to bring different groups together — and deliver results to an impatient governor.
"Everyone should be pleased that we have someone in place who understands what it takes to achieve results,'' said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chair of the General Assembly's education committee. "I'd rather have that background … than someone who has spent years tooling around in the bureacracy."
In New Haven, Pryor worked for New Haven Mayor John DeStefano before attending Yale Law School and founding Amistad, which is now part of a group of high-achieving public charters run by Achievement First.
"I don't think it has to be seen as this guy is pro-union or not pro-union. He is going to be pro-kid. … He won't be an antagonist,'' DeStefano told me Tuesday. "Look at his experience."
That experience includes four years with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation trying to come up with a plan to rebuild the ground zero neighborhood after the Sept. 11 attacks. For the past five years, Pryor has worked for Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Yale Law classmate, as deputy mayor in charge of economic development and housing. Part of his job included leading the city's legislative agenda — something that would be a key priority under Malloy, who is expected to propose changes in school financing, teacher training and union contracts.
Back in Connecticut, where he once served a brief stint as a student-teacher in New Haven and was recognized by a local paper as the "Best New Face in Government," Pryor must take on the role of the outsider with big ideas.
"I would prefer that the candidate know what it's like" to be a teacher, said Sharon Palmer, president of AFT Connecticut, one of the state's two unions representing teachers. "It's not a deal killer but we will look more closely at his ability to understand the work we do. I'm going to reserve judgment until he gets here."
In New Haven, Pryor's early record as idealistic Yalie, elected alderman and school-founder still burn brightly.
"What he lacks in educational expertise or experience he will be able to make up for in his ability to bring people together and collaborate. He is the kind of person who is going to zero in on important priorities,'' said Frank Currano, a former teachers union president in New Haven who now leads the board of education inBranford.
The truth is, many folks may see Pryor as a threat to the status quo, which will be his greatest advantange in his new job, which will start within a month.
"I don't doubt that people will see this as threatening," said William Ginsberg, CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, a philanthropy. "That's exactly what Connecticut needs to make real fundamental change happen in education."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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