Last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made a passionate case for why we all must commit to education reform in 2012. Speaking at his education reform summit, the governor made clear that school improvement is a team effort, requiring the involvement of all stakeholders.

No truer words have been spoken with regard to education reform in Connecticut. Improving our public schools is not just the role of teachers and principals. Parents and students play a key role, as do community leaders, local and state elected officials, advocates, the business community, and all of us who ever interact with anyone who went to public school – that is, every one of us. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire state to fix a child’s public schools.

And Connecticut’s public schools do indeed need fixing.  Connecticut currently posts the worst achievement gaps in the nation. Two-thirds of our low-income third graders can’t read at grade level. One in five students drops out of high school.  And the vast majority of our public school graduates going on to postsecondary education in Connecticut require basic remedial studies in English, math, or both. Now is the time for the Nutmeg State to wake up.  The governor has made that clear, and is looking for all parties to join him in the restoration of Connecticut’s public schools.

Unfortunately, there are some who are continuing to insist that we allow procedural disagreements or superficial distractions to be valued over our children’s futures. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported very disconcerting comments from Gary Peluchette, head of the Bridgeport Education Association, referring to Connecticut residents trying to improve Connecticut public schools as “robber barons.” And last week we read some extreme vitriol from Jonathan Pelto calling into question the motives of nonprofit organizations in Connecticut and those citizens who are supporting student-focused causes.

These are just the latest examples of the venom with which some speak when discussing the role of public/private partnerships and the growing philanthropic interest in improving our public schools.  Local community members, who want to see their local schools improve and have the financial means to help jumpstart a reform process, are now “robber barons?” Really?

A century ago, American public education was hardly the model to write home about, and private philanthropy was a big part of how we got to the top. We saw our medical schools take a significant step forward because of folks like Carnegie. Libraries benefited from people like Ford.  General education and research were supported by the likes of Rockefeller.

There is now an entire literature dedicated to the role of corporate philanthropy and the societal benefits that derived from such giving.  Today, we see large foundations as a result of those original “robber barons,” foundations that are committed to improving children’s health, education, and society as a whole.  They do so without a profit motive, just hoping to make a difference with the resources the have available. They do so because they want to leave the world, and our state, a better place.

That is why it is so disappointing to see the Peltos and Peluchettes of the world try to place some sort of shame on those who are willing to support important causes such as education improvement in Connecticut. We should be proud of those who are willing to put their own dollars toward efforts to improve our public schools. We should applaud those who volunteer their time to ensure every child has access to great public schools.  And we should demand that more get involved, with both their time and their money, to ensure that our children and our state have a stronger future. Instead of looking for conspiracy theories or seeking to ascribe sinister motives for those who are trying to do the public good, we should be joining with them in the cause.

Let there be no mistake, there is no money to be made or financial return on investment to be won from donating to education nonprofits or public charities. The financial return to be gained from education reform is held solely by those children who will benefit from better public schools, and by our state, which will spend less on remediation and social services and gain more from revenues contributed by productive adults who reach their professional peak.

Ultimately, we are doing our kids, our schools, and our community a disservice when we try to run off well-meaning philanthropists and civic leaders with name-calling, insinuation of ulterior motives, or promoting a general sense of “ickiness” because the private sector wants to contribute to our public schools.  Instead, we should be embracing such involvement, and answering the call from Governor Malloy to have all concerned parties at the table, fixing the problems of Connecticut public education.  

For us to be truly successful, we must engage the entire educational “village” – the village we saw firsthand at last Thursday’s education reform summit. From the teachers unions, to superintendent and board of education groups, to think tanks, to community organizations, to advocacy groups, we’re all in this together. And as the adults in the village, it’s our job to focus on the kids. We must stop with the name-calling and the feigned procedural concerns. When we look back in 20 years and ask “What became of the Year for Education Reform?” the worst possible thing would be to say that this unprecedented moment was hijacked by a few status quo defenders who won out by making everyone feel icky. What a disappointment that would be. Can’t we do better, Connecticut?

Now is not the time to turn away a helping hand, and try to walk the road alone.  We need all the help we can get.

Patrick Riccards is the CEO of ConnCAN, a statewide education reform advocacy organization.