Stefan Pryor announced Monday he will not seek another term as state education commissioner and is seeking a new job — a step that could diminish some of the teacher dissatisfaction with the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as the governor seeks re-election.
“Having served for nearly three fulfilling years as Commissioner, I have decided to conclude my tenure by the end of this Administration’s current term and to pursue new professional opportunities,” Pryor said in a statement. “Because I believe it’s important to communicate my decision proactively to the Governor and the public, I am doing so now.”
Malloy, who had resisted calls by political opponents for Pryor to resign, praised the commissioner.
“Commissioner Pryor has worked hard and well on behalf of Connecticut students,” Malloy said. “In the three years he’s led the department, we’ve taken tremendous steps forward to improve education, with a particular focus on the districts that have long needed the most help.”
Pryor came to the post as a “change agent,” in Malloy’s words, one of the high-profile outsiders Malloy recruited to his administration: Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz to children and families, Daniel C. Esty of Yale to energy and environmental protection, and Catherine Smith, the chief executive officer of ING U.S. Retirement Services, to oversee economic development.
“We needed someone who could act as a change agent, and Stefan fulfilled that role admirably,” Malloy said. ” And we’re seeing strong results. Graduation rates have gone up each of the last four years, national high school tests show that Connecticut students are leading among participating states in reading and math, and that we are making real progress in closing the achievement gap.”
Malloy found his education commissioner in Newark, N.J., where he had been a deputy for four years to Cory A. Booker, then a mayor with a rising national profile and a future as a U.S. senator. For Booker, he worked on economic development, a natural progression after serving as president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Pryor, a Yale-educated lawyer, was a founder of a charter school New Haven who had worked on education and youth issues in New Haven for the administration of Mayor John DeStefano. When Malloy chose him as commissioner, DeStefano praised the selection, telling the New York Times: “In an ideologically charged environment such as public education, a collaborative approach will serve us well.”
It is not unusual for a commissioner to step down after one term, but Pryor’s announcement of his intentions now, when it is not known if there will be a second Malloy term, is a sign that he is a liability to the governor’s re-election.
Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, who lost last week’s Republican primary for governor, had called for Pryor’s dismissal, as did a petitioning candidate still in the race, Jonathan Pelto.
“When it comes to actually supporting Connecticut’s public schools, Malloy’s true intentions remain unknown, but Pryor’s departure is a small step in the right direction,” Pelto said Monday.
He said Malloy has an “anti-teacher, pro-charter school, pro-Common Core agenda” that is “bad news for Connecticut public schools or, at the very least, a political disaster for him has he aspires to a second term in office.”
In June, the Connecticut AFL-CIO staged a biennial political convention as a two-day infomercial promoting the re-election Malloy, with one carefully choreographed note of discord: A rebuke to the Democratic governor’s choice of Pryor as commissioner of education.
Before formally endorsing Malloy, the statewide labor federation adopted a resolution offered by AFT-Connecticut, one of the state’s two major teacher unions, that called for a requirement that an education commissioner hold the same credential as a school superintendent, a standard that Pryor does not meet.
“We’re hoping the governor’s listening,” Melodie Peters, the president of AFT-Connecticut and an AFL-CIO vice president, said then.
On Monday, Peters said she wished Pryor well.
“While we have had policy disagreements over the past three years, we have never questioned his personal commitment to fulfilling the department’s mission,” Peters said. “His core belief that all learners deserve an opportunity for a quality education has never been in doubt.”
Malloy’s relationship with teachers has been tense over his approach to education reform and its implementation of the Common Core curriculum standards.
With cover from the state’s two largest teachers unions, Malloy in June kicked off “Connecticut Core,” the administration’s latest effort to quell the political and policy clamor over how Common Core curriculum standards should be implemented.
“Some people would rather concentrate on what divides us. I’d rather look at what divides us and find ways to bring them together,” Malloy said at the time.
Pryor has declined to comment on the AFT resolution, and earlier this year sidestepped questions about whether the election-year political focus on him impedes his ability to serve as commissioner.
On Monday, the larger of the two teachers’ unions, the Connecticut Education Association, acknowledged that its relationship with Pryor had been strained at times.
“While we did not disagree with the commissioner on the goal of maintaining and improving public education for all students in Connecticut, we did disagree at times on how to reach that goal,” said Sheila Cohen, the president of the union.
She did not dwell on those disagreements, saying in a statement that her union was looking forward to a successor with “boots-on-the-ground” experience.
“CEA looks forward to the selection of a Connecticut public schools’ state steward who exemplifies a realistic and pragmatic—as well as visionary—voice for teachers, parents, and students. Connecticut’s teachers, with their unparalleled classroom perspective and their irreplaceable voice in public education policymaking, must be major players in every aspect of the determination of the future of public education,” she said.
CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, which represents policy analysts at the Education Department, said: “While we have had our differences with the Commissioner, we laud him for his dedication to the State’s educational system and we wish him well in his future endeavors.”
The Northeast Charter Schools Network, advocacy group for charter schools in New York and Connecticut, issued a statement saying that Pryor would be missed:
“Commissioner Pryor’s departure will be a loss for Connecticut and its school children. During his tenure, Connecticut became a beacon for public education reform by expanding access to more high quality public charter schools, increasing funding for turning around perennially failing schools and districts, all while creating a climate of greater accountability for student learning. Connecticut’s children have been the most direct beneficiaries of this work.”