Pryor will go, but reforms need to stay

The announcement by Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor that he will not serve past the end of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's first term has all the appearances of a political move intended to improve the governor's chances of having a second term.

Granted, Mr. Pryor said the decision was his. After "three fulfilling years," he said, he is ready to "pursue new professional opportunities."

Maybe it is just a coincidence, then, that the exit of Mr. Pryor will appease the teachers' unions, which have not been pleased with the commissioner's push for the expansion of charter schools or the implementation of teacher evaluations and Common Core curriculum standards.

The Pryor announcement could also blunt the insurgency of petitioning candidate Jonathan Pelto, a former state representative and Democratic Party organizer who has criticized Malloy on his blog - "Wait What?" - particularly on the topic of education reform, with Mr. Pryor a favorite target. The support of teachers could prove critical in a close election and the Malloy campaign doesn't want to lose many to Mr. Pelto.

While the politics are interesting, it would be troubling if Mr. Pryor's departure signals a change in the reforms he sought to implement. During a brief, surprise visit to The Day on Monday, part of a campaign push through the area, the governor assured us he will stay the course on education reform if re-elected.

The governor recalled he was seeking a "change agent" when he nominated Mr. Pryor in 2011. To do so he reached outside the educational coterie for a reformer.

At the time of his nomination, Mr. Pryor was serving as a deputy, in charge of economic development, for the administration of Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory A. Booker, now a U.S. senator. A Yale-educated lawyer, Mr. Pryor was a founder of a New Haven charter school and supported the charter-school movement as a means to improve student choice and encourage educational innovation. He also spent several years involved in efforts to reform struggling schools in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This educational outsider played a significant role in the passage of the state's education reform bill of 2012. The bill focused increased financial and administrative support on Connecticut's lowest-performing districts, including New London and Norwich. During Mr. Pryor's tenure, the state created 1,000 new preschool slots to give more children in impoverished communities a better chance to succeed, while implementing uniform evaluation standards for teachers and administrators.

While Mr. Pryor was strong on innovation, he was often weak on implementation. The reforms were thrust on teachers without enough effort to include them in development or earn their trust. The teachers' unions were particularly upset with implementation of the federal Core Curriculum standards and tying them to evaluations. The rebellion led to a delay in implementation and a rebranding as "Connecticut Core."

Arguably, Mr. Pryor and the Malloy administration attempted too much reform, too fast, but that is a far preferable vice to the years of inaction seen during prior administrations, even as the performance gap widened between students in poor, urban schools and those in the more affluent suburbs.

Most recently, Mr. Pryor's office reviewed, and he endorsed, the selection of Terrence P. Carter to be New London's next superintendent. Newspaper investigations, however, turned up serious concerns, such as Mr. Carter being referenced as "Dr." though he had no doctorate from an accredited university, and evidence of plagiarism on his application. The New London Board of Education is now awaiting results of an investigation that should give it the evidence it needs to reject Mr. Carter and launch a new search.

The long-term prospects for New London schools remain exciting, thanks in large part to Mr. Pryor's leadership and his department's support for a plan to create an all-magnet-schools district, providing more student choice, diversifying the student body and attracting increased state aid.

We urge the selection of a replacement for Mr. Pryor who supports such reforms, while having a stronger background in traditional education administration.

As for Mr. Pryor, on balance he served Connecticut well.

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