Ethics panel clears state’s education chief to rule on charter schools

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor has been cleared by the state’s ethics panel to make decisions on the network of charter schools he used to be closely tied to.

Pryor, who helped open Amistad Academy in New Haven and was a member of the board responsible for the governance of numerous charter schools in the state, asked the panel for the ruling last month so he could begin shaping his education agenda, which may include the expansion of new charter schools.

“I appreciate the fact that the commissioner is double checking the [state] statutes so carefully. It’s a good move on his part,” David Gay, leader of the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board, said before the panel unanimously ruled there was no conflict.

The opinion outlines that because Pryor has never had any financial stake in the charter schools and is no longer associated with the organization there is no ethics problem.

“Public service is a public trust and must not be used for personal financial gain,” the opinion reads. “There would be no financial gain to him personally.”

The first decision Pryor will likely have to make on his old network of schools is whether to allow Achievement First to open a new high school in Hartford. The group has asked legislators to sign off on a new school so its middle school students have a school to move onto. If it moves forward the state will be responsible for providing $9,400 per student enrolled, or $4 million a year. Efforts to open other new charter schools in the state have routinely been unsuccessful.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy backed his education chief’s being able to make decisions on charter school earlier this month, calling it “utterly and fantastically ridiculous” for Pryor to recuse himself.

“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.”

Currently, there are 18 charter schools in the state, in which 5,723 students are enrolled. About half 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.