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Bridgeport takeover try a cautionary tale

Ohanian Comment: What amazes/distresses me about this article is that there are zero reader comments. Whenever a paper runs an article about teachers, not matter what it says, there are plenty of readers to jump in to bash teachers. But with this investigative piece about the subversion of democracy, there's not a word.

by Wendy Lecker

The behind-the-scenes dealings resulting in the takeover of Bridgeport's Board of Education were revealed in a chain of emails circulated over the weekend. These emails tell a chilling tale of exploiting close relationships with those in power to trample the will of the people.

In January 2011, Alex Johnston, then executive director of the charter lobby, ConnCAN, wrote an email to Meghan Lowney, a consultant for an organization called Bridgeport Partnership for Student Success and to Allan Taylor, the chair of Connecticut's State Board of Education. Ms. Lowney's organization was funded by a financier named Steve Mandel, a founder of Lone Pine Capital in Greenwich and a trustee of and large donor to Teach for America.

In this email, ConnCAN's director introduced Lowney and Taylor, suggesting that Hartford's "path from state takeover to mayoral control" could be a model for Bridgeport. He offered Mr. Taylor's help, as Taylor used to be on the Hartford City Council. Throughout the takeover process, Ms. Lowney communicated with Mr. Taylor numerous times, indicating she had also spoken with Mayor Finch and others. Neither Ms. Lowney nor her organization is a registered lobbyist. Ms. Lowney indicated that she was working with Nate Snow, director of Teach for America, to precipitate the takeover of the board of education.

In addition to being state BOE chair, Mr. Taylor is also on the advisory board of ConnCAN. ConnCAN was established by the same people who funded and started the charter chain Achievement First. Over the past few years, ConnCAN has engaged in an aggressive campaign to send public school money to privately run charters and to vastly expand charter schools in Connecticut (and now throughout the nation). Similarly, Teach for America's focus on expansion has turned it into multimillion-dollar enterprise. It does not take much imagination to see why ConnCAN and TFA might have an interest in wresting control of Bridgeport's schools away from its democratically elected board.

The ensuing emails reveal a disturbing chain of events. The acting education commissioner asks State Department of Education staff working with the school district whether the Bridgeport Board of Education has impeded implementation of Bridgeport's Strategic District Improvement Plan, and reports back to Taylor that the Bridgeport Board of Education has not impeded any implementation. Then, Taylor writes, "I think the issue, then, is whether the board is doing anything to forward the work." The board has been found not to be an obstacle to the state's work with the district, so Mr. Taylor has to find a different excuse to take over the board?

It is obvious from the emails that officials involved knew that the law required that board members be trained before the board was taken over and that the members were not given that training. In discussing whether the real problem of the board is fiscal or that the board is dysfunctional, Mr. Taylor writes to the acting commissioner, "[t]he fix you have suggested -- a declaration that the board has taken the required training and it hasn't resolved its inability to make the necessary decisions in a rational manner -- would deal with both issues." Tell a falsehood rather than follow the law?

The rest of the story we know. The state reconstituted Bridgeport's board in July 2011. The ousted board members sued. Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled that the takeover was illegal -- something state officials clearly knew from the start. The court noted that Mr. Taylor and the acting commissioner communicated with some elected city officials without the knowledge of the ousted board members. Apparently, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The court emphasized the longstanding policy of local control over schools and school districts. We, parents and citizens, want our boards of education to answer to us, not to any outside interest. The court further stated that it is clear the Legislature intended for the reconstitution law to be used only in extreme cases. And now we can see why -- our local democracy, and our children, must be insulated from the political or financial interests that we can neither see nor control.

The governor will undoubtedly attempt to frame this as a necessary move in a city where children were not being educated. However, Bridgeport schools have been woefully underfunded for years, and Governor Malloy has not deemed it necessary to fund Bridgeport's or any of our public schools adequately. Without adequate resources, how can any child receive the education to which she is entitled under our Constitution? Moreover, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled, in Connecticut's pending school funding case, CCJEF v. Rell, that our Constitution requires the state to provide an education that enables each child "to participate in our democratic institutions," such as voting. Our Legislature would not be setting much of an example if, in the name of education, it renders our right to vote meaningless.

Governor Malloy's emergency bill designed to undo the court's decision failed. However, in his pending education bill, S.B. 24, he has included a provision empowering the State Board to authorize the Commissioner of Education (also a founder of Achievement First) to reconstitute any local board of education without requiring board training.

Bridgeport should serve as a cautionary tale. We should be demanding more restraints on the power of the State Board of Education and commissioner, not fewer. We should be demanding that, in the rare case a board be reconstituted, it be done in the public view, protected from political games.

Wendy Lecker is a former president of the Stamford Parent Teacher Council and was staff attorney at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, plaintiffs in a school funding lawsuit in New York.

— Wendy Lecker
Connecticut Post





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