ConnCAN’s Johnston leaving divided opinions as he moves on

Six years after launching what’s become the highest-profile education reform group in the state, ConnCAN’s controversial leader is moving on–and leaving Connecticut’s education system pretty much the way he found it.

“We have not kept up the reforms other states are doing,” Alex Johnston said in an interview at his New Haven office. “We have a system that has been static for far too long.”

That’s not for lack of an ambitious agenda on Johnston’s part. The list includes drastically expanding funding for alternatives to the traditional public schools, launching teacher evaluations based in part on student performance, and ending the practice of laying off the newest teachers when budgets are tight simply because they have the least seniority.

Johnston photo

ConnCAN’s Alex Johnston talks with gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley before an education forum between the candidates hosted by his organization last year.

But these reforms have yet to be realized, despite ConnCAN’s extensive television and radio ads, rallies, email blasts and letter-writing campaigns, and relentless lobbying at the state Capitol.

Johnston’s admirers say he brings passion and persistence to his advocacy for education reform. But other observers say his outspokenness and impatience with procedure have hurt his cause by alienating more than a few key people throughout the education community in Connecticut.

“In several corners they are glad to see him moving on. He has been seen as abrasive. I guess some may call his technique passionate. It depends on where you stand on the issue,” said the recently retired longtime spokesman for the State Department of Education Tom Murphy. “Some believe that he has been effective with this approach.”

Perhaps the most public expression of irritation at Johnston’s style came at a meeting in December of a panel of education leaders considering recommendations for changing the way the state finances public education.

The panel, chaired by then-state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan, was not planning to take up a proposal backed by Johnston that would have the effect of shifting some state money to charter schools. But Johnston created his own subcommittee with several panel members who would support the idea, and presented a package of reforms to McQuillan before the meeting.

That move infuriated McQuillan, who publicly chastised Johnston for going behind his back.

“You don’t run this meeting. I set the agenda,” he declared, who was also apparently upset about the governor hosting a meeting to discuss education issues at the same time as his budget meeting.

Citing stress, McQuillan resigned the next day and Johnston was able to get the committee to narrowly approve his initiatives at their next meeting. But the full State Board of Education has yet to take action on the proposal.

Johnston said upsetting the state’s top education leader and others “is certainly not something we set out to do,” but added, “I’m not going to be able to please everyone. Consensus is not essential — change is.”

A few months later, Johnston went around another influential leader. This time it was the co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, after Fleischmann made it clear that his committee would not be considering ConnCAN’s school financing proposal this year.

Johnston managed to get the legislature’s Appropriations Committee to consider the bill and host a 6-hour public hearing where parents and students flooded the State Capitol to testify in yellow t-shirts reading “Fund my Child Fairly”.

That did not sit well with Fleischmann.

“He does not make himself easy to work with,” said Fleischmann. “He has made the mistake of having the belief that to be an advocate you have to fight with people. That’s not how the legislative process works.”

Like the State Board of Education, the Appropriations Committee never acted on Johnston’s proposal.

Gwen Samuel, the leader of the recently created Connecticut Parents Union, said she believes Johnston stirs animosity because of his advocacy for causes that aren’t universally popular, not because of his style.

“He is clearly a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “He is a thorn for union members and some lawmakers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

“ConnCAN has been a valuable asset to parents,” she added. “The information they give us is invaluable.”

An insider now at the Capitol, Samuel said she is well aware that powerful special interest groups and legislators carefully dissect ConnCAN’s information. The National Education Association earlier this year helped fund a study through their Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice that discounted ConnCAN’s school financing plan.

And legislators are listening too, says Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven and head of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

“Alex is persistent. He has a presence at the Capitol. Regardless of what people think of him, he has influence. I see Alex as a resource even though I may not always agree with him,” he said. “He is always prodding the legislature to move things along. … It’s good to have external forces pushing us to make movements because sometimes people aren’t doing what we should be.”

Call it coincidence, but an hour after ConnCAN sent out an email blast calling on state legislators to end the practice of school districts laying off teachers based only on their seniority, the state Senate was voting on an amendment raised by the ranking Republican of the Education Committee to do just that. It failed.

Johnston is unfazed by the setbacks, and says ConnCAN has been successful by his standards in mobilizing parents and students to get state leaders to pay attention to their demands.

“This is a political problem. We have to change adult’s behavior,” he said. “I believe we can.”

He also said ConnCAN has been successful in helping tweak education legislation being considered by legislators.

“We have made some incremental progress,” he said, but added that he is leaving ConnCAN with the group’s top priorities still unaccomplished. “Our work is more important than ever,” he said.

Not surprising, the state’s teachers unions are not fans of Johnston’s initiatives and actively campaign against them. Their hostility towards each other is no secret to those in the education community.

That hostility was outlined in a presentation given at a national American Federation of Teachers conference. The presentation says ConnCAN’s “toxic dialogue” was hurting the Connecticut AFT chapter’s efforts to defeat a major reform that would have allowed parents to vote to reorganize or close failing schools.

“It’s the battle of the Titans. They are really at it at times,” said Murphy.

A spokeswoman for the state’s largest teachers union — the Connecticut Education Association — was not interested in commenting on ConnCAN or Johnston’s tenure.

And with 21,000 people receiving their e-mail blasts and 989 Facebook followers, they have proven they are the source many parents turn to for education reform information.

“They have been able to make a name for themselves,” said Murphy. “They have been a drastic alternative to what others have been pushing for in the state.”

But ConnCAN is now sharing the stage for advocating for these reforms, with two groups with similar goals launching in recent months, one backed by business leaders and another representing parents from urban areas.

“We need all the help we can get,” Johnston said.

While Johnston is mum on where his next move will be, he said his replacement will likely play a key role in developing future education policy in the state in the coming months. Malloy has promised to dedicate the upcoming year to improving the state’s education system.

Education advocates say this dedication is long overdue, since the state has hosted the largest achievement gap between minority students and their peers for years and a school finance system that is broken.

And even with Johnston’s less-than-desired techniques, Fleischmann says the state needs ConnCAN to replace him with someone just as knowledgeable on these subjects.

“He is an extraordinarily intellectual person. He is leaving behind a big void,” he said.