Many of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s executive appointments have been considered nontraditional. His final pick for the head of the Department of Education was no different.
Malloy tapped Stefan Pryor, the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development for Newark, New Jersey. Pryor doesn‘t have a doctorate in education or classroom teaching experience, but Malloy said his skill set, experience, and work ethic fit nicely into his “sweet spot.”
“I have to acknowledge that this is outside the box,” Malloy said at a press conference that interrupted the State Board of Education meeting.
“I think if you look at the diversity of experiences, all of which over a 20 year period of time have related to education in one way or another, he‘s the right candidate,” Malloy said.
Malloy said he’s known of Pryor—who served as an alderman while a Yale student before taking a position in the administration newly-elected Mayor John DeStefano from 1994 through 1997—for some period of time and encouraged him to apply for this position, as he encouraged others to apply for the position.
Pryor co-founded New Haven’s nationally lauded Amistad Academy charter school before leaving for New York City to work on school reform for a business group called Partnership for New York City. After 9/11 he worked for that agency and then the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (eventually as president) on rebuilding businesses in the wake of the terrorist attack.
Alex Johnston, chief executive officer of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, said anyone who can manage to sort through the “tangled, passionate stakeholders” after 9/11 comes to the state with a critical skill set to help move education forward.
The expertise in dealing with legislative bodies that Pryor gained as deputy mayor will be a necessary skill to have as the General Assembly focuses on school reform during the next legislative session, he said.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said she first spoke with Pryor Tuesday evening on the phone. She said he has an impressive background, but one that’s much different than past Education Commissioners.
“It’s time we start to expand our horizons in Connecticut,” Stillman said.
Sharon Palmer, president of AFT-CT, the state’s second-largest teachers union, said she also received a call from Pryor Tuesday and was hopeful about his desire to collaborate.
Mary Loftus-Levine, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said his collaborative background was important. Someone with those skills is exactly what the state needs right now, she said. He already reached out to the CEA, which she said was a good sign.
“I’m very impressed with his personal credentials and his range of experience, particularly in the area of urban education because that’s really where we need to focus our attention,” she said.
She said it was too soon to say whether his lack of a teaching background will be an issue. Many teachers aren’t parents but still succeed in teaching children, she said.
“I think we should give someone a chance. I think it’s way premature to judge him,” she said.
“I hope that he listens to teachers,” she added.
Some have speculated that since Pryor has experience with charter schools, which typically aren’t unionized, that he will favor their interests over those at public schools.
“Let’s be about that which is most likely to bring about the highest achievement rates, regardless of what it’s called,” Malloy said.
Reciting a statement from the campaign trail, Malloy said, “I’m pro-reform as long as it doesn’t mean bashing teachers and I’m pro-teacher as long as it doesn’t mean that I have to stand by and maintain the status quo.”
Pryor himself said in his career he’s had the chance to see how a mandate for change and real progress can emerge from the most difficult of conditions.
“In public education here in Connecticut there are bright spots and best practices to be sure. There are excellent schools and there are exemplary districts, but there are also too many places where students are not fulfilling their potential,” Pryor said. “This situation merits a mandate for change.”
“We must respond with real and sustained urgency,” Pryor said. “One of the most affluent states in the country simply cannot permit these inadequate and inequitable conditions to persist.”
He said with this governor, state Board of Education, and General Assembly, “we’ve arrived at an important moment in Connecticut.”
“Simply put providing an excellent education for all of our state’s children is the key to our future.”
While discussing Connecticut’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap at their meeting, Board of Education members seemed optimistic that Pryor was capable of providing the leadership to turn that trend around.
Closing the gap will require someone who can coordinate the complex education system, said Patricia B. Luke of East Hampton.
“I think that’s where the frustration lies. Everyone wants a better education system but no one knows how to bring the pieces together of a whole community of those who need to help,” she said.
Like Pryor, the board’s chairman, Allen B. Taylor, said he felt that recent appointments to the board and the new commissioner could be a turning point for the board and the state’s education system.
“We have to look at ourselves, with a new board and a new commissioner just as a way of saying, okay this marks a point to take stock and take a look,” he said. “… I have the sense that we are at one of those cusps.”
Board members unanimously recommended Pryor’s appointment Wednesday. He will be paid $185,000 a year.