To remedy 'disengagement,' Connecticut Partnership must engage the public

The Connecticut Partnership, the private-public nonprofit agency set up by the Dalio Foundation and Gov. Ned Lamont to better prepare "disengaged and disconnected" public high school students for higher education and careers, should be kicking into gear any time now. The partnership's website, connecticutpartnership.org, says the full governing board of 13 people was expected to be seated by July 15 but it is awaiting several appointments.

While it gets organized, the partnership that aims to raise and spend up to $300 million in private and public funds over five years has taken criticism for a potential lack of transparency in how it will do business. Last week, it got word from state Attorney General William Tong that regardless of the agency's legislated exemption from the state Freedom of Information law, its elected public official members are still subject to FOIA requirements — effectively opening the agency's business to the public.

The partnership holds in its hands the potential to reshape both lives and 21st-century learning systems, and it can be a phenomenal gift to the state and its children if managed right. It should embrace two essential principles for meaningful reform, right from the start:

  • Transparency is not only appropriate and preferred under state law and precedent, it is the best way to engage citizens' attention. With a goal of remedying "disengagement," it seems hypocritical to skip any opportunity for engagement.
  • The people who have the most expertise in what is needed must participate in the process — or risk the old-fashioned philanthropy of the father-knows-best ilk. Fill the remaining empty seats on the board with educators, employers, at least one student and one parent.

As of now it's unclear who those positions will be going to. That is making education professionals as uncomfortable as FOI exemption was making House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, when she asked the attorney general for an opinion. Tong's response, as reported in The Connecticut Mirror, would apply equally to the other elected officials on the partnership board: the governor and the other three top leaders of the General Assembly. Besides Barbara Dalio, one of the benefactors of the project, the board so far includes one educator, Sheena Graham, of Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, and Erik Clemons, CEO and president of a nonprofit with a related mission of jobs preparation, the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology in New Haven.

The partnership also has a second purpose, which is to support "economic development in under-resourced communities through microfinance and social entrepreneurship," presumably as the flip side of its goal to "expand upward mobility in Connecticut." The Dalio Foundation will give $100 million over five years; the state has agreed to a matching $100 million; and the plan is to raise a third $100 million, some of it quite likely from the corporations that would gain the trained and educated employees they need. 

This is not the Dalio Foundation's first rodeo. Under Barbara Dalio's leadership it operates education programs on a more limited scale. As a private foundation it has no doubt developed tactics that did not have to take into consideration the open government laws.

In its reach for a statewide plan to empower young people who would otherwise languish in the poorest neighborhoods after leaving the least effective schools, the partnership is essentially fighting the harsh reality of an underclass in our society. It's a breathtaking notion that most people would view skeptically, however much they'd like to believe in it. We have learned, over and over, that big ideas don't come true without the right mix of mission and money. 

The partnership has begun with plenty of money and leverage to get more; it has a big mission and a plausible set of goals. But its leaders will have to accept that sometimes you can't just double the recipe to feed more people. This public-private formula can only succeed by embracing transparency and by welcoming public buy-in from the start. That's the other, invaluable kind of capital that takes this from a top-down set of good intentions to genuine social change.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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