It’s a little difficult to imagine that the entire future of the education reform movement is being decided in a municipal election in Bridgeport, Connecticut. But that is exactly what might be happening this fall. Paul Vallas is a familiar face – or at least a familiar name – to anyone who has charted the progress of the education reform movement in the United States. He was intimately involved in helping New Orleans overhaul its failing public schools and convert almost all of them to charters, which also launched him into the national spotlight. For his efforts, he has even been lauded by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a school choice supporter in his own right.
Therefore, as Molly Ball of The Atlantic explains, it seems surprising that the first chink in his armor comes from an election so small it is unlikely to even make the front page of any national newspaper. Currently, Vallas serves as superintendent of schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut. But after three of the board members – all Vallas supporters – were trounced in the recent election, his own job is far from secure.
“A coalition of teachers, parents, local activists, working families, and good-government groups — folks with a stake in the education system in Bridgeport — came together and defeated the Bridgeport political machine,” said Lindsay Farrell, state director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, which backed the winning slate of insurgent candidates. “I think we have reason to be optimistic that the tide is turning against this corporate reform movement that Paul Vallas is the poster child for.”
His opponents accuse Vallas of many things, including closing public schools, laying off their staff, and cutting funding for them, all to funnel that money to for-profit companies that own and operate charter school consortia. However, according to Vallas, none of this is true. During his tenure in CT, he closed no traditional schools and opened no charters. He notes that without doing any of this things, he was still able to close a looming budget hole in Bridgeport, all without reducing the quality of schooling provided to the district’s kids.
The new board members are determined to oust Vallas, Farrell told me, and begin searching for a new superintendent. They plan to undo Vallas’s reforms, including increased student testing, high-priced consultant contracts, and cuts to special education and electives.
The schools fight in Bridgeport actually predates Vallas; he was hired as part of a school-reform push by the state’s Democratic elites. In 2011, after the Working Families Party won a minority of school-board seats and started using them to challenge the establishment, the state responded by eliminating the elected Bridgeport school board altogether. It was replaced with a board of mayoral appointees that hired Vallas.