‘Education gap’ panel also faces a confidence gap

As businessman Steven Simmons tries to fix what’s wrong with Connecticut’s public schools, he hopes to win the help of skeptics such as parent activist Gwen Samuel.

Simmons has built an impressive résumé as a college professor, children’s book author and cable TV entrepreneur, but his recent appointment by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to head a state commission on low-performing schools perplexed Samuel.

What, she asked, do business leaders, including those from towns such as upscale Greenwich, know about schools in the state’s poorest cities?

Simmons, Steven, 3-29-10

Steven Simmons

Rell named Simmons and 10 other prominent business leaders and professionals to tackle the achievement gap – the chronic problem of lagging achievement among low-income and minority children.

“I’m just concerned with the makeup of the commission,” said Samuel, founder of the State of Black Connecticut Alliance, an advocacy group that has made the achievement gap a key issue.

Simmons acknowledged that the commission has much to learn. But, he said, “The business people on the commission are all business leaders used to solving problems. We don’t come at it with a particular bias or agenda except to get the problem fixed.”

The Commission on Educational Achievement will be looking for solutions to a problem that affects schools across the nation. Countless other educators, researchers and experts have spent years studying the issue, trying to find out why so many children fall behind in school.

“The achievement gap is not only a tragedy for their lives, but it so dramatically affects everyone else,” Simmons said during a recent interview in Greenwich at Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications, where he is chairman and CEO. “It affects dropout rates, it affects unemployment, it affects crime, it affects the job base for all our companies.”

Of the 50 states, Connecticut has the largest achievement gap separating low-income children from their more well-to-do classmates on U.S. Department of Education tests of reading and mathematics. The gap separating minority and white students also is among the largest in the nation.

“We spend more than almost any other state on public education, yet we’re 50th out of 50,” Simmons said. “Somehow, we’re not doing the business of education right. Something is wrong.”

Simmons approached Rell in December and suggested forming the commission. Along with the governor, he put together a bipartisan group consisting of three members with backgrounds in education and eight business leaders and CEOs.

“Business leaders have a direct interest in assuring that we have a skilled, educated and productive workforce,” Rell said in a prepared statement. “Their willingness to step forward to work with the education community and to make recommendations for change is a welcome addition to this effort.”

The group plans to hold public hearings, visit schools and meet with experts in hopes of preparing a report and recommendations by next fall, Simmons said. “We want very much to involve legislators,” he said. “We want to involve unions, school district superintendents, school boards, and, of course, teachers and parents.”

Simmons, 63, grew up on Long Island, where he attended public schools. “I owe a tremendous amount to my public education,” he said.

He is a graduate of Cornell University and Harvard Law School and the author of five children’s books. Before founding the cable TV company, he taught law and government courses at the University of California and worked on the White House’s domestic policy staff during the Carter administration.

Simmons said the response to the commission has been supportive. Nevertheless, some, such as Samuel, have questioned whether the group will come up with new approaches to a longstanding, stubborn problem.

Samuel, who has pushed for legislation giving parents more influence on school reform, expressed her concerns about the commission after visiting Bridgeport’s Harding High School, where parts of the building were in disrepair, she said.

“I believe [the commission] should look at some of these failing schools. Harding should be one. Their conversation will change if they see some of these schools,” she said.

Simmons has not met Samuel but said she has a point. He hopes the commission, working alongside parents and others, can make a difference.

“To the best of my knowledge, these [commission] members haven’t grown up in some of these substandard public schools,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we haven’t faced our own challenges, and it doesn’t mean we can’t go there and see what challenges exist.

“It’s precisely when people from other areas get involved – people that have political influence and can add their voices – that you can get momentum.”

Other members of the commission include: Ramani Ayer, retired chairman and CEO, The Hartford; David Carson, retired chairman and CEO, Peoples Bank, Bridgeport; Roxanne Cody, president and founder of R.J. Julia Booksellers; William Ginsberg, president and CEO, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven; Carla Klein, former teacher and member of the Bridgeport Public Education Fund; Yvette Melendez, board member of The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and former chief of staff of the Connecticut State University System; Peyton Patterson, chairman, president and CEO, New Alliance Bank, New Haven; Steve Preston, president and CEO of Oakleaf Waste; John Rathgeber, president and CEO, Connecticut Business & Industry Association; Dudley N. Williams, Jr., Director of district education strategy, GE Asset Management Group.