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Vallas Finally Meets His Match in Bridgeport

You may not have heard of Paul Vallas, which would surprise him given that he has already claimed to be the Michael Jordan of ed reform. Ok, we admit it, journalists took his original quote a little out of context, but it makes for good press and it’s not far from the truth.

Vallas’ resume begins in 1980 at Western Illinois University, where he finished up his Master’s degree after receiving his BS there just a few years before. He promptly joined the Illinois National Guard and became a policy adviser in the Illinois State Senate. This turned into a new opportunity in 1985 when he became the executive director of the Illinois economic and fiscal commission (now the ILGA), a post he held until 1990 when he became both the Revenue Director (until ’93) and then Budget Director (until ’01) of the City of Chicago.

It is during that span in the 90s when his education career really took off. He became the CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 1995 and remained in that position until he was recruited away to Philadelphia in 2001. He stayed in Philly until 2007, when a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans hired him away to run the Recovery School District (RSD). He took a joint post as Lead Education Consultant to Haiti and Chile for the Inter American Development Bank in 2010. Whatever stress or spotlight he was under then still did not stop him from accepting the interim Superintendent’s post in Bridgeport, CT in 2011, which was finally consummated in writing in March of 2013.

Bridgeport education circa 2011 was in shambles, and although it had not been affected by a hurricane or an earthquake, the city’s public school system was badly in need of an overhaul. Bridgeport had the state’s worst test scores and the state’s worst graduation rate. It was $9 million in the hole and the school board had just experienced massive turnover after a majority of the previous board had declared itself dysfunctional, thereby earning themselves dismissal by the state DOE. An article in the Connecticut Post referenced the incoming Vallas as a “change agent” and cited his plans for Bridgeport as being to “balance the budget, come up with a long-term financial plan and..establish an education plan to improve academic outcomes in the district’s 30 schools.”

That article highlighted a lot of people in support of Vallas going to Bridgeport, most of them thinktankers from all over the country, but it also mentioned some detractors. For instance, Karren Harper-Royal of New Orleans wrote an email to the Post that said Bridgeport parents should get rid of Vallas because he would not turn their schools around. Of course, Harper-Royal’s opinions on Vallas are largely based on her perception of school choice in general, which Vallas leveraged in New Orleans to double the number students passing the state’s standardized test during his tenure there. Harper-Royal, an outspoken opponent to choice, claimed in a 2011 speech that her child (who is enrolled in a charter school, by the way) was tested “in Kindergarten…and when he got up to 8th grade, if he didn’t keep a “C” average, they wanna kick him out.” This is obviously not true since charter schools can only expel a child for extreme behavioral problems, the same policy as all public school.

The supporters vs. detractors discussion helps underline why Vallas is now being sued by a former Superior Court judge and Bridgeport resident, Carmen Lopez, and some others who are trying to drive him out of Connecticut. Vallas’ supporters are big-picture people who recognize the poor state of American education, while his detractors are local grassrooters who don’t like being told what to do.

This is a classic case of reform xenophobia. We saw it in Washington, D.C. when Michelle Rhee was forced out by a band of community organizers after she purged the school system of a lot of bad teachers with neighborhood pull. Vallas, who has only dealt with very large districts before (Chicago, Philly, and New Orleans), has likely never encountered such resistance from the local district school militia.

But what sort of case do they have?

Unfortunately for Vallas, court procedure and Connecticut law might end his term, which just started and is supposed to go into 2016. The problem is that state law dictates that the Superintendent must have a teaching certificate, and Vallas’ graduate degree is in Political Science. His take on this is that certification shouldn’t define competency, but he has already been told to leave office while his appeal is being considered, something his legal team is fighting this very moment.

What sort of case does he have? It’s actually pretty strong.

Remember those promises he made upon entering office in 2011 for the interim period? The first was to close the budget gap. The second promise was to come up with a long-term financial plan for the city. According to Bridgeport Public School’s website, Vallas has “closed the district’s 12 million dollar budget deficit and has begun implementation of a comprehensive five-year budget and school improvement plan for the district.

Done and done.

His third promise was to tend to the academic problems the city has faced for decades, but results like that take time and he has only been the official, full-time Superintendent for four months. His track-record can serve as an indicator. The expansion of charter schools in Chicago and New Orleans under his tutelage both indicate the importance of school choice in any reform effort.

For example, Andrew Broy of Illinois Network of Charter Schools quoted the recent CREDO report by saying that “the average Latino charter school student in Chicago gains more learning in one year than the average white student.” Well, almost 40% of the Bridgeport community is Hispanic, meaning a lot of parents in the city stand to benefit from school choice if he stays. The same CREDO study showed similar gains in New Orleans, which was 60% African-American in the 2010 Census. Bridgeport’s increasingly non-white student body stands to gain a lot by expanding charter schools, but Bridgeport is a microcosm of a much larger, statewide opposition to charter schools.

Connecticut has very restrictive charter school caps and only a single authorizer. The avenues for chartership are so mired in obstacles and red tape that it’s no surprise that NAPCS ranked Connecticut’s charter school law 31st out of 43. Despite the advances that Bridgeport could see from allowing Vallas to expand charter school presence, there are larger forces working against him than just a few disgruntled families in Bridgeport.

But it is those disgruntled families leading the charge against him at the local level, and it is that local law suit that stands to damage his influence the most.

Here is the reality: He has done his job. He fulfilled most of his promises before his formal contract even began in March 2013. His resume proves that he could be doing so many more things, but he chose a district of 21,000 kids as his next project and now they want him out.

And why do they want him out? Because he hurt their feelings. He didn’t conform to the Bridgeport methods that got them into this mess in the first place. His big-city politics got him into little-city trouble in a little city that is in big trouble if they let him go.

He wants more testing and more teacher evaluations, but the district apparently doesn’t want to be held accountable for their low scores so they want to put the spotlight on Vallas and not their performance measurements.

Make no mistake, Vallas was tested during his interim period. He passed that test. His employment contract states that he will be evaluated, just like the teachers. His base salary of $234,798 ($4500 a week) is less than Chicago’s ($250,000), Philadelphia ($494,333), and New Orleans ($281,000). He also took steps to work with a professor and write essays toward obtaining an equivalency teaching certificate, all while working as the interim superintendent of the most challenging district in the entire state of Connecticut.

Why is Bridgeport trying to drive out Paul Vallas? Politics, plain and simple.

If Vallas gets booted from Bridgeport we know another big city in the American midwest who can benefit from both his utilization of school choice and his budgetary acumen… that is, if Jack Martin isn’t up to the task.




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