The Working Families Party Claims a Scalp in Bridgeport

Albert Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, once said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

Let it be known: The spirit of Shanker lives on in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where a union-backed political party has all but succeeded in running out of town one of the nation’s most successful and respected education reformers.

As a city, Bridgeport has a lot of problems. Crime is high and the unemployment rate is 12.1 percent (statewide it’s 8.2 percent). Good news has been in short supply in the Park City. With one exception: In December 2011, Paul Vallas was appointed acting superintendent of the Bridgeport Public Schools.

It was a high-profile hire for the troubled city. Vallas is an education reformer with a reputation for rescuing failing school systems. He was CEO of schools in both Chicago and Philadelphia and achieved impressive results. But he made his name in post-Katrina New Orleans, where he took over the rebuilding of that decimated city’s Recovery School District. Over 100 of New Orleans’s 128 school buildings were damaged or destroyed by the 2005 hurricane. The Louisiana Legislature authorized a sweeping takeover of the public school system, which had previously distinguished itself as one of the worst in the nation.

Although Katrina was a human tragedy, it gave New Orleans a rare chance to start fresh. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Vallas was given “free rein to do whatever he needed to improve [the schools],” and improve them he did:

All but the most committed nostalgists agree that, despite the growing pains, the schools have risen above their abysmal pre-Katrina state. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other national figures have praised New Orleans as a model for school reform.

If Vallas could turn around desperate situations in Chicago and New Orleans, you’d think he’d be perfect for Bridgeport, wouldn’t you?

You wouldn’t if you were part of the education status quo. The New York Times explained the issue recently:

Parents are upset over [Vallas’s] plans to increase the use of student testing. Union officials have denounced his insistence that administrators frequently visit classrooms to evaluate teachers, as well as his history of enthusiastic support for charter schools. And community activists argue that he consistently shuts out dissenting voices.

In other words—we like the failing Bridgeport Public Schools just the way they are, thank you very much.

Last month, activists succeeded in convincing a Connecticut Superior Court judge that Vallas is not qualified to run Bridgeport’s schools because he hasn’t done the coursework required for certification as a superintendent by the State Board of Education. He must step down while his case goes through an appeals process.

It seems like a small thing to require a proven reformer like Vallas to take a class when the stakes for Bridgeport’s kids are so high. Who would go to such lengths to keep a celebrated reformer with a track record of success out?

Bridgeport is a Democratic city. The mayor, Bill Finch, is a Democrat, as are all 10 members of the city council. The nine-member board of education is split among six Democrats and three members of the Working Families Party (WFP). The Times story made passing mention of the role in this drama of the WFP–calling it “a liberal coalition based in New York City with outposts in Connecticut, [that has] made removing Mr. Vallas its mission.”

But that doesn’t quite do justice to what the WFP is and does. In 2010, the not-so-conservative-editorial-board of the New York Daily News called the Working Families Party “a political organization that has become largely a front for labor unions that make claims on public funds.” In a 2013 Mother Jones article, Alison Hirsh, the political director the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, “representing 120,000 workers in eight Eastern states” was quoted calling the WFP “one of our most important political allies when it comes to moving our political agenda forward.” According to the Connecticut Post, the Bridgeport Education Association, the local teacher’s union and an NEA affiliate, has worked “side by side” with WFP on policy initiatives such as both groups’ shared opposition to charter schools.

The New York Times’s decision to publish a story leaving the false impression that the Working Families Party is just another “liberal coalition” in the diverse quilt of our rowdy democracy is a shameful sin of omission. In reality the WFP is a creation of unions, including teachers’ unions, and its goal is to defend and retain a system that works just dandy for its adults even as it fails its children.

Smart mayors in struggling cities around the country are surely hoping to capitalize on Bridgeport’s sad mistake. Paul Vallas will land on his feet. If only we could say the same of Bridgeport’s kids.

Originally posted at Ricochet.com on July 22, 2013.

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