Opinion: Bridgeport Tenure Shows Vallas May Be Failing Upward in Illinois

Part 1: Paul Vallas Arrives in Bridgeport, Ct.

City of Bridgeport

To hear education reformers nationwide tell it, Paul Vallas is a superstar.

Talk to some folks in Bridgeport, CT., however, and a different picture emerges. While he was only there for a couple of years, Vallas' role as school superintendent in Connecticut’s biggest city was marked by controversy and chaos, including a stinging electoral rebuke engineered by a coalition of teachers, parents, local activists and a little known political party.

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.

By any measure, Vallas’ tenure as superintendent of a mostly poor and troubled school system was rocky at best—and more likely an outright failure at worst. During his tenure, controversy erupted over the illegality of no-bid contracts, continued poor student performance and charges he shut out parents and teachers from important decisions. As well, questions over his qualifications, whether he should have used school district money to pay his legal fees and the propriety of accepting high-paying outside work angered many and led to efforts to remove him from office.

The story of how Vallas arrived in Bridgeport is complicated, but the shortened version looks like this.

In 2011, Democratic mayor Bill Finch helped engineer a state takeover of Bridgeport schools, saying it was the only way the district could be improved. At the time, many in and out of Bridgeport felt the move was intended to pave the way for privatization of the district’s schools, along with a more test-oriented, standardized approach to learning many national education reformers seek.

In 2012, however, the state Supreme Court overturned the takeover. Later that year, Finch again attempted to gain control over the Bridgeport Board of Education through a referendum authorizing a board appointed by the mayor and not elected, only to have the measure defeated.

Into this story walked two opposing forces: “superstar” reformer Paul Vallas and the Working Families Party. The Party got there first, electing two members to the city’s Board of Ed in 2009. Months of intense battle followed, in which Finch, newly-elected Democratic governor Daniel Malloy and lobbyists for a Greenwich billionaire sought to marginalize the new members and control the city’s school system any way they could.

Part of that strategy involved finding an ally to become superintendent. In 2011, the state’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, recruited Vallas to become Bridgeport’s $229,000 part-time, acting superintendent of schools, following his stints leading districts in Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia. At the time, Vallas made some bold predictions about his abilities and likelihood for success, telling the Wall Street Journal:

"My plan is to be done within a year, and to have the budget balanced, to have the academic plan embraced and supported, and to have the next generation of leaders ready to drive the system forward," he said.

But here’s where things, believe it or not, start to get interesting. Instead of considering the matter closed and accepting the new administration, Vallas’ arrival only seemed to fire up opposition and determination even further among some teachers, parents and activists to what they saw as heavy-handed tactics to wrest the school system away from local control.

By the time Gov. Quinn tapped Vallas on Friday to be his running mate, his tenure in Bridgeport was seen by many as a disaster, not only for his own reputation but for the larger, nationwide school reform movement as well.

How Paul Vallas went from being seen as the savior of a troubled district to “a case study about the arrogance and abuse of power” who saw his tenure marked by controversy, saw voters elect even more of his opponents to the school board, failed to deliver on his promise and was in danger of being thrown out of office, is a story worth telling in full.

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