Malloy: ‘fantastically ridiculous’ for education chief to recuse himself on charter schools

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gave his blessing Tuesday for his education commissioner to make decisions on Achievement First, despite Stefan Pryor’s long history of being involved in the state’s largest network of charter schools.

Malloy said it would be “utterly and fantastically ridiculous” for him to recuse himself from decisions about the schools.

Blogger and former Democratic state legislator Jonathan Pelto has called on Pryor to recuse himself.

Pryor “finds himself in the unique position of being able to determine whether that aggressive growth plan will succeed or fail. Not only is that the appearance of a conflict of interest, but any reasonable person would recognize it is a direct conflict of interest,” he writes.

Teachers unions and other likely foes of a drastic expansion of charter schools have said they are waiting to see how the new education leader’s relationship with the schools play out, but have not come forward to call on him to recuse himself.

Just to play it safe, Pryor has asked the Office of State Ethics for advice on how to proceed. Achievement First does want to expand in Hartford and create a high school for its middle school students to move onto, which would mean the state approving an addition $9,400 per student enrolled at the school, or $4 million a year. Efforts to open new charter schools in the state have routinely been unsuccessful.

Malloy said those calling on Pryor to recuse himself have ignored a key point.

“We only have public charter schools in the state of Connecticut. That’s all that is authorized. They are public schools. So in essence what you are saying is, because someone is involved in public schools they shouldn’t be allowed to be involved in public schools – it’s utterly and fantastically ridiculous.”

Pryor told WNPR on Tuesday morning that he doesn’t believe it’s a conflict.

“We’re talking about public schools here. Just like a superintendent of schools or a school board chair who becomes a commissioner no one would claim that there’s a conflict of interest with the schools in that jurisdiction,” he said.

Currently, there are 18 charter schools in the state with 5,723 students enrolled. About half of them attend Achievement First’s nine charters in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven. The state spends $52.8 million a year on these schools.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education says that with less than 1 percent of public school students attending charters, Connecticut ranks well below the national average. That’s not for lack of demand: The State Department of Education says charter school enrollment would double if everyone on the wait list got a seat.