On Nov. 5th, the tiny Working Families Party scored two major electoral victories likely to have repercussions across Chicago, Illinois and possibly the nation.
One, they’re credited with helping to elect Bill de Blasio mayor of New York City, a move that some hope might be the beginning of a new liberal ascendency in city and national politics.
And, two, they helped spell the end of Paul Vallas tenure as superintendent of schools in Bridgeport, CT.
On Election Night, several candidates aligned with Working Families critical of Vallas won seats on the Bridgeport Board of Education, which meant a 5-4 majority for critics of his style of reform. For many, it was believed that if he had stayed in Bridgeport, Vallas’ opponents on the board would have ended his position as superintendent by voting to remove him.
How Vallas came to almost losing his job in Bridgeport—in fact, he was already facing an order from the superior court judge to leave office—is less a tale of how a small political party helped slay a education reform giant and more about the potential gap between perception and reality in his reputation as an education reformer.
Vallas is stepping down as Bridgeport Public Schools Superintendent to become Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate in the 2014 election. He became superintendent of Bridgeport’s schools in January, 2012.
Vallas arrived in Bridgeport as part of a complicated and complex battle between a Democratic mayor, a Democratic governor and a number of well-heeled education reformers on one side and parents, teachers and community activists on the other over the the best way to reform a troubled and underperforming school district. Outside of the labyrinth of local Connecticut politics, Vallas’ tenure in Bridgeport was seen as another opportunity for his style of education reform, for which he has won a national reputation.
But not in Bridgeport.
“The more Bridgeport voters got to know about Paul Vallas, the less they found to like,“ Lindsay Farrell, Connecticut director for the Working Families Party, told Ward Room. “Last week's election results were a rebuke of his brand of corporate reform. Vallas wanted more tests, less support for special education and for arts, and less input from parents and the community. But that didn't sit well with parents and the community, who wanted smaller class size and schools that work for every student."
Almost from the beginning, Vallas’ opponents found much to take exception to, including:
- Focusing on creating a “teach to the text” culture in the system by implementing additional rounds of standardized testing
- Signing more than $12 million in no-bid contracts, including a contract for a “free” software program created by a company he had worked with before that failed to work before. The software was considered free in exchange for a lucrative Medicaid reimbursement contract.
- Cutting $14 million form the district’s budget for special education needs.
- Shutting out teachers and parents from important decisions by excluding School Governance Councils in violation of state law.
- Fighting to keep his job despite a Superior Court ruling that Vallas failed to meet the state’s legal requirements for superintendent, even after the rules were amended to specifically accommodate him.
- Failure to raise student’s performance, including the the all-important 4th and 6th grade standardized test scores as measured by the 2012 and 2013 Connecticut Mastery Test Results for Bridgeport Students.
There’s more to the Bridgeport story, of course. But the bigger picture lies in the fact that, despite his rock star reputation, Vallas is decidedly mixed at best since leaving his position running Chicago’s schools in 2001.
As head of school districts in Philadelphia and New Orleans—along with a side trip to Haiti—before Bridgeport, Vallas initially saw results with a strategy that focused on slashing budgets, privatizing schools, and laying off off teachers and workers.
As for Bridgeport, few seem to be crying in their beer over his departure.
"It was clear that Vallas cares more about his career than our city's students,” says Sauda Baraka, a Working Families Party member who was just re-elected to the Bridgeport Board of Education. “We're not sorry to see Vallas go, though we send our regrets to Illinois."
While Gov. Quinn undoubtedly picked Vallas for a variety of skills and a broader electoral appeal, it’s his work as an education reformer leading school systems in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and elsewhere that helps bring his name recognition and star power to the ticket.
By that measure, Bridgeport was not a good experience for Paul Vallas.