Education outsider gradually gaining allies

NEW HAVEN — In public education circles in Connecticut, Alex Johnston has not always been a welcome guest.

As head of the New Haven-based school reform group Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), Johnston often rankled the public school establishment with his blunt criticism of schools he believes are failing to educate the state’s poorest children.

Johnston and Taylor

Alex Johnston talks with state Board of Education chairman Allan Taylor after a meeting last week. (Photo by Robert Frahm)

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and city school officials once signed a letter accusing Johnston and ConnCAN of “a distinct pattern . . . of abuse and denigration of public schools.”

But last fall, DeStefano appointed Johnston to the city’s Board of Education. “I thought he was an important voice to have on the school board,” DeStefano said. “He provides a valuable window into new strategies for school change.”

What made the mayor change his mind? “I’m a smarter man today than I was then,” he says.

Johnston has been an outspoken supporter of publicly-funded charter schools such as the successful, high-profile Amistad Academy in New Haven, and some say DeStefano’s views changed after the mayor joined Amistad’s board of directors.

“He started to go to every single meeting and became an ally,” said state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “I think the mayor appreciated how bright and hardworking Alex is.”

That characterization of Johnston is shared by others who have watched the 37-year-old Harvard graduate and former Rhodes scholar lobby for education reform at the Capitol.

“He’s a pretty intense guy,” said State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the Education Committee’s other co-chair. “Alex is extremely bright and extremely well-informed on all the latest matters [involving] federal policy, state policy and local school district policy.”

Fleischmann said Johnston was a helpful ally last year in pushing for a bill that streamlined the state’s teacher certification process, making it easier for schools to recruit top-flight educators.

“I see quite a bit of him, and I like and respect him,” Fleischmann said.

Johnston, 37, the son  of a schoolteacher and a college professor, came to education reform out of a conviction that it is key to solving social ills.

“I really do believe the most powerful tool we have for addressing inequity and poverty is by fixing our public schools,” he says.

He left a job as director of operations for the New Haven Housing Authority, managing the agency’s rental properties, to help found ConnCAN in 2005. His faith in education is reflected in ConnCAN’s mission statement: “We will not rest until every child in our state . . . has access to a great public school.”

ConnCAN, a nonprofit organization supported by private donors, lobbies for improved academic standards and greater accountability, promotes policies that give parents more choices of schools, and issues reports ranking schools and highlighting those that have had success in closing the achievement gap. Its advisory board includes high-profile names such as Yale University President Richard C. Levin, state Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor and actor and film director Ron Howard.

A central goal of ConnCAN is to promote reforms that help to close the achievement gap. On a national test known as the Nation’s Report Card, Connecticut’s gap between low-income and wealthier children is the largest in the nation.

As ConnCAN’s $140,000-a-year CEO, Johnston has made the achievement gap a key part of the public discussion about education.

“Alex has had a game-changing impact on the conversation in Connecticut,” said Dacia Toll, a longtime friend of Johnston and head of Achievement First, a management organization that oversees Amistad and several other charter schools in Connecticut and New York.

“Alex is not an ideologue,” she said. “He is driven by an analysis of what works. ConnCAN is a data-based organization. They simply analyze [test] data and focus on schools that are working.”

Not everyone agrees. Johnston got a chilly reception from teacher unions and other members of the education establishment at a recent State Board of Education committee meeting where he called for a new funding plan for charter schools. Most feared the plan would hurt traditional public schools, and some accused ConnCAN of exaggerating the success of charters in its reports ranking public schools.

“The claims are not factually based. They are misleading, and they don’t pass the smell test,” said Mark Waxenberg, director of government relations for the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union.

It was not the first time CEA had criticized ConnCAN. In 2007, the union issued a report disputing a ConnCAN study that gave high marks to several charter schools and magnet schools based on student performance.

The union’s analysis, compiled by a former state Department of Education researcher, said student turnover, differences in school size and incomplete data made ConnCAN’s findings inconclusive. John Yrchik, executive director of the union, said he did not want to comment on Johnston for this story.

Around the same time the union challenged ConnCAN’s findings, DeStefano was raising concerns about Johnston’s support for charter schools. In a 2007 interview, DeStefano told the New Haven Independent, “I think Alex has unfortunate biases about public schools.”

According to Johnston, ConnCAN’s relationship with New Haven began to thaw as the mayor and others embraced an ambitious effort to address the chronic academic achievement gap that finds many low-income and minority children lagging behind their white, middle-class classmates. New Haven is one of the state’s poorest cities, and its schools perform well below average on annual statewide tests of reading, mathematics, writing and science.

“It was clear to me from the mayor’s public remarks . . . they were really getting ready to launch a major reform initiative,” Johnston said. “It really became clear our interests were aligning.”

New Haven’s reform effort was highlighted by the recent approval of a groundbreaking teachers’ contract that establishes procedures for shaking up low-performing schools, gives teachers a greater voice in school operations and allows schools to consider student performance as part of teacher evaluations.

That contract has been hailed as a model by President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others.

The contract also allows the district to pay bonuses to schools showing substantial progress and to reorganize low-performing schools, including the possibility of creating local charter schools.

As New Haven’s reform plan was being developed, DeStefano’s office contacted him to discuss ideas informally, Johnston said.

When Johnston was invited to speak last fall at the annual convention of the state’s school boards and superintendents, it was a measure of how much had changed.

“Over the past two years, ConnCAN has changed its way of working. It has done a superb job of reaching out to local boards of education,” said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. Before that, Rader said, “There was . . . certainly a feeling among some in public education they were undermining the work we were trying to do. . . . I think being on a board of education will give him an opportunity to see things from a very different perspective.”

In spite of his new role as a member of New Haven’s school board, no one expects him to abandon his advocacy for charters and other non-traditional approaches. “I don’t think we’re going to agree on all fronts related to education reform and just how you get there,” said Reginald Mayo, New Haven’s longtime superintendent of schools.

“We’ve had disagreements in the past . . . but we’re all in this thing together to try to find the best way to educate young people,” Mayo said. “I’ve never said I’m against charter schools. I have disagreed with some of [ConnCAN’s] tactics and the way they’ve put public schools down for their benefit.”

Still, he said, “Alex, to me, is a great thinker, a hardworking guy, probably one of the greatest lobbyists out there. I would hope we could get him to do some lobbying for us.”

Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers – Connecticut, the state’s other major teachers’ union, said, “We’ve had many conversations with Alex Johnston, and there are many things we agree on. What I don’t like is the trashing of public schools. . . .They’ve let up on that a bit. . . . I think they’ve discovering how difficult public education really is.”

But, she said, “I can’t say we’re best buddies and singing ‘Kumbaya.'”