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Vallas saga offers teachable moment on abusing power

Here's a concise summary of the Vallas case. Note the difference from the New York Times love affair with Paul Vallas. Here's the lead to their piece from July 22, 2013.

Paul G. Vallas, a leader in the effort to shake up American education, has wrestled with unions in Chicago, taken on hurricane-ravaged schools in New Orleans and confronted a crumbling educational system in Haiti.

Now he faces what may be his most vexing challenge yet: Fending off a small but spirited crowd of advocates working to unseat him as superintendent of one of Connecticut's lowest-performing and highest-poverty school districts.

Note the Times dismissal of Vallas opponents as "a small but spirited crowd" while Vallas is the advocate for change who "takes on," "confronts."

And the New York Times gives Arne a platform:

Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary, said the opposition to Mr. Vallas was "beyond ludicrous." He said too many school districts were afraid of innovation, clinging to "archaic ideas."

"This, to me, is just another painfully obvious, crystal-clear example of people caught in an old paradigm," Mr. Duncan said in an interview. "This is the tip of the iceberg."

Tip of the iceberg, indeed. Neither Duncan nor the New York Times mention that it was Vallas who hired Duncan in Chicago.

But that's another story.

by Wendy Lecker

The ouster of Bridgeport superintendent Paul Vallas has become a "cause celebre" among education reformers, who claim it is part of a broader conspiracy to perpetuate the "status quo." Rather, it is a case study about the arrogance and abuse of power that have become the hallmark of the so-called reform movement.

The Vallas saga is the story of how an infamous reformer broke the law -- a law written expressly for him -- and how senior officials put personal and political connections above the law and welfare of Bridgeport's children.

Following the illegal state takeover of Bridgeport's schools, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor invited his friend Paul Vallas to head that district. Having never been certified to teach or work as an administrator, Vallas lacked the legal credentials to serve as an administrator in Connecticut.

Vallas previously led the school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, leaving each one in crisis. His reigns were characterized by no-bid contracts, destabilization and a failure to raise achievement. Now, Chicago and Philadelphia have closed a record number of schools and the Recovery School District receives a consistent F rating by the state.

Despite his dismal record in those districts, the Malloy administration devised a law to enable Vallas to stay in Bridgeport. Passed in July 2012, it allowed Pryor to approve an uncertified acting superintendent if he completed an educational leadership program and a probationary period. Moreover, if he fulfilled these two requirements and the commissioner deemed him "exceptionally qualified," he could obtain a waiver and be a permanent superintendent. In January 2013, Pryor approved Vallas to be acting superintendent. Vallas, hired in July 2012, was an illegal acting superintendent for most of 2012.

Under the law passed for him, Vallas had to complete an educational leadership program. Countless teachers and administrators complete advanced degree programs while working full-time. Vallas could not be bothered. Instead, he took one three-credit independent study, that he helped design, at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education and pretended that it was a leadership program. Neag's dean later testified that this course did not qualify as a leadership program.

In April, two Bridgeport residents sued Vallas for violating this law. After trial, Judge Barbara Bellis rendered the only decision the clear language of the statute allowed -- Vallas did not fulfill the statutory requirement and must vacate the position of superintendent. The judge noted that Vallas received preferential treatment "at every level." The law was so clear that even Malloy's allies, the Connecticut Council on Education Reform, acknowledged that Judge Bellis ruled properly.

Incredibly, Malloy and Pryor now decry the law they wrote and support the law-breaker, Vallas.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an old friend whom Vallas hired in Chicago, also demonstrated his disdain for Connecticut law. He told The New York Times that opposition to Vallas was "beyond ludicrous." His press secretary, Daren Briscoe, informed me that Duncan has known Vallas for years and believes he has "obvious qualifications," based on Vallas' experience in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans -- the school districts he left in ruins.

I asked Mr. Briscoe, in light of a judge's ruling that Vallas violated a Connecticut state law, what Secretary Duncan's position on the Vallas matter was. He replied "no comment."

The Vallas cronies' disdain for the law is exceeded by their contempt for Bridgeport's children. Vallas' departure was predictable. Superintendent turnover is so common today that the head of the American Association of School Administrators calls superintendents "highly paid migrant workers." Furthermore, from April to the judge's decision on June 28, the Bridgeport Board of Education or its committees met 28 times. Discussion of a contingency plan in case Vallas was ousted was never on the agenda. In fact, while Vallas was on trial, the board convened a special meeting to appoint him as the permanent superintendent.

Bridgeport officials had ample time to plan a smooth transition from Vallas before school resumes in September, but stubbornly refused. In his appeal, Vallas now claims his departure will result in chaos. If the district cannot run without his presence, he must not be an effective manager. And if there is chaos, it is caused by the board's unconscionable negligence.

The Vallas saga is the age-old tale of abuse of privilege by the powerful and well-connected. That is the story of American education reform. One can only hope that when the Connecticut Supreme Court hears this case, it will once again remind Bridgeport officials, as it did in 2012, that no one is above the law.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity project at the Education Law Center.

— Wendy Lecker
Stamford Advocate





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