The controversy over Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s charter school background wasn’t an issue at his Tuesday confirmation hearing where no lawmakers raised concerns about a perceived conflict of interest.
In December, Pryor asked the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board for an opinion on whether his affiliation with the Amistad Academy and the charter association Achievement First constituted a conflict of interest.
The board found that because he has no financial interest in either the school or the association, Pryor’s position as commissioner was not a conflict of interest. However, the board could not say whether there was an appearance of a conflict.
Appearance or not, committee members voted unanimously to confirm Pryor and no one suggested during the more than two hour hearing that he may have a conflict of interest. Rep. Claire Janowski, Co-chairwoman of the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee, said members of the committee now seem comfortable with Pryor’s background.
“Some of the members who raised that issue were here, so they could have asked that question so it seems as if everyone was satisfied with his background, his experience and he does bring a wealth of experience to the position,” she said after the hearing.
Though Janowski said some members of the committee had raised concerns, Pryor’s charter school affiliation was discussed in a positive light during the hearing. Rep. John Piscopo, R- Thomaston, said charter schools do a good job helping hard to reach students and are unfettered by the state compared to traditional schools.
“I’m really glad you have that kind of background,” he said.
Piscopo asked Pryor if there were too many state restrictions placed on charters. Pryor said charter schools get greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability. The state is looking to provide more opportunities for innovation at traditional and charter schools, he said.
Lawmakers also seemed content Pryors limited education background. Unlike most of his predecessors, Pryor doesn‘t have a doctorate in education or classroom teaching experience. When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appointed him in September, he acknowledged his pick was “outside the box.”
That outside the box perspective seemed to resonate with members of the committee.
Rep. Themis Klarides, R- Derby, said that rather than direct teaching experience, Pryor’s experience with education comes from a more collaborative perspective. He served for instance as the Deputy Mayor of Economic Development for Newark, New Jersey.
“I think that your broader outlook on education, based on the things surrounding it, would seem right,” she said. “… I do think that that collaborative experience you have and the outlook you have make you very well suited for this position.”
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney agreed, saying Pryor’s nontraditional background may be of extraordinary benefit to the state “as someone who will not take an excessively bureaucratic approach to looking at the challenges of the office.”
Pryor said that he hopes his experiences working different roles in public schools grounds him enough in the ethos of the education system to carry out the work of his position. But he said he intends to come at the job with a fresh perspective.
“I do think it’s important to take a fresh look at our perspective of any system, inclusive of the education system and I hope I can bring some of that to this job,” he said.
While everyone on the committee seemed impressed with Pryor, some members had concerns over some of the education reform proposals he and the governor rolled out for the session.
Sen. Len Fasano, R- North Haven, said many teachers in his district had concerns over Malloy’s proposal to reform teacher tenure. Generally tenured teachers earn higher salaries than newer educators and teachers have raised concerns that school districts will use the governor’s changes to get rid of their higher paid employees, he said.
“In an era where there’s a lot of budget crunching in school districts and lean cutting, this may serve some as an opportunity to slice off the ones with the larger salary to bring in ones with less salary,” he said.
Pryor said that while there has been a lot of discussion over that topic, scholars have found that most school districts are using tenure reform to enhance teacher performance, not balance their budgets.
The state Board of Education also recently adopted framework for a new evaluation system for teachers and school administrators which would reveal school districts that fired teachers over their salaries, he said.
Janowski said she was concerned about a requirement that towns pay $1,000 per student attending a charter school.
“I’m hoping you will reconsider the charter tuition costs. What are they going to do? They have no choice but to increase local taxes,” she said.
The state Senate will still need to confirm Pryor as Education Commissioner.