OP-ED | A Bad Couple Of Weeks For Connecticut’s Education Reformers
After stumbling out of the starting gates, it looks like independent gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Pelto had a good last week while his arch enemies, the boosters of charter schools, had a bad one.
Pelto, the darling of the public-sector unions, was hurt earlier this month when the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 29,000 faculty in Connecticut’s public schools, endorsed his nemesis, Gov. Dan Malloy, for re-election, as did the even-larger AFL-CIO. It was a blow to Pelto, who had counted on near-unanimous support from the teachers unions he had been so assiduously courting since being passed over for a post in the Malloy administration in 2010.
Meanwhile, moderate Democrats like Malloy — whom Pelto has branded a “corporate education reformer” — were given just enough rope to hang themselves.
To wit, Michael Sharpe resigned last week as CEO of Jumoke Academy, an award-winning charter middle school in Hartford’s troubled North End. It seems that Sharpe spent two-and-half-years in jail after pleading guilty to embezzling $125,000 from California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit. The sad saga continued as Sharpe returned to the pokey a few years later after violating probation.
School and state officials professed ignorance of Sharpe’s criminal past, which raises the question: Have they ever heard of Google? Using “Michael M. Sharpe BART” as search terms, I found an AP article from 1989 on the first page of results.
To make matters worse, FUSE, the management group that runs the publicly funded Jumoke, this week refused to disclose the terms of Sharpe’s departure, arguing — evidently with a straight face — that any severance package is “considered a private personnel matter.”
The Sharpe imbroglio feeds into the narrative of Pelto and other anti-reformers that many charter school leaders are nontraditional pretenders to the throne who can’t be trusted. Either that or, like Principal Steve Perry of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, one of Pelto’s other favorite punching bags, they are derided as unaccountable publicity seekers.
Well, it turns out that Sharpe is indeed a pretender. Not only did he conceal his criminal record but he invented an honor he never achieved. The folks who hired him never checked out Sharpe’s bogus claim that he had a doctorate in education from New York University.
Then we learned last week from The Courant’s Jon Lender that the family of corporate Democrat Jonathan Sackler, a Greenwich investment executive and charter school advocate, gave a total of $91,000 to the state Democratic Party this year and last. During that same time, Sackler’s firm also gave more than $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, where Malloy is hailed as a visionary leader.
All these education reform misadventures should be filed in the you-can’t-make-this-up department. Indeed, Pelto couldn’t have written this script any better if he had tried.
And Pelto did well at a recent Working Families Party rally, where he exploited likely GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Foley’s comment about wanting a “Wisconsin moment” for Connecticut — a reference to Gov. Scott Walker’s successful attempt to limit collective bargaining rights for public employees. And he rallied the troops by reminding them of Malloy’s failed attempt in 2012 to get the legislature to agree to end teacher tenure and eliminate collective bargaining in so-called turnaround schools.
But the biggest news for Pelto might have been an endorsement of sorts. Former state Republican Party head Chris Healy has been circulating a petition to get Pelto on the November ballot. Notwithstanding their philosophical differences, the two men are said to have a relationship of mutual respect dating back to when they worked together at the Capitol.
Of course, both have motives that are at cross purposes with the other’s. Healy is a supporter of charters schools while Pelto is not. Healy wants Pelto to tip the scales in favor of the Republican gubernatorial nominee, while Pelto insists he does not.
Can Pelto win? I don’t think so, but if the education reformers continue to do him so many favors, he will be a disruptive force to be reckoned with.