Michelle Rhee revolution faces massive threat -- and new accusations

In Bridgeport, a quiet bipartisan scheme to protect ed reformers' favorite school chief is suspected by critics

Published November 4, 2013 1:30PM (EST)

Michelle Rhee                          (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Michelle Rhee (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Education reform lightning rod Paul Vallas – who courted controversy helming school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Chicago -- isn’t on the ballot tomorrow. But a school board election in Bridgeport, Conn. – the latest district to tap Vallas to oversee reforms -- could effectively spell his fate. Tomorrow’s vote will offer the latest referendum on the bipartisan, billionaire-backed mainstream education reform movement, and on a multi-year effort by local Democrats – aided by the likes of Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee -- to defeat or disempower labor-backed dissenters.

“As I’ve gone around the country, I always point to Bridgeport as one of the signs that the people can beat the power,” former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and high-profile reform critic Diane Ravitch told activists on a conference call last month. Tuesday’s election is the latest round in a long-running war over ed reform, and who should shape it, in the largest city in one of the country’s most unequal states.

For the sake of shielding Vallas and his agenda, activists allege that the city’s Democratic machine has acted indifferent or even hostile to defeating Republicans tomorrow.

“What’s at stake is the future direction of Bridgeport schools,” said Connecticut Working Families Party executive director Lindsay Farrell, citing issues including testing and class size. “And I think, in a broader sense, the direction of public education in this country.”

As I’ve reported, Bridgeport’s school board became a battleground in 2009, when two of its Republican members were ousted in an election by candidates from the labor-backed Working Families Party. While Bridgeport is overwhelmingly Democratic, by law no more than two-thirds of its nine school board seats can be held by the same party. While the board’s Democrats and Republicans had often seen eye to eye on education, the WFP didn’t. “They were very effective at questioning the status quo,” Bridgeport Education Association vice president Rob Traber told Salon last year, and when Mayor Bill Finch’s superintendent pushed unpopular cuts in 2011, the Democratic machine and its business allies got “afraid that they might lose control of the board.”

Tensions rose. Majorities on the school board and state board of ed voted (with Mayor Finch and Gov. Dan Malloy’s backing) to replace the elected board with state appointees. A court overturned them and ordered the elected board restored. Finch then pushed a referendum in 2012 to end school board elections – with cash from Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee and an appearance by Rhee's husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson – but was rebuffed by voters 2-to-1. Fitch’s director of education and youth told Salon afterward that ending school board elections had been touted by “top reformers” because “taking the politics out” had proven “a catalyst” for reform elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the board’s majority tapped Vallas as schools chief (first temporary, then permanent), and an activist retired judge sued on the grounds that Vallas lacked the legally required credentials for the position. That suit is pending.

But Vallas’ greatest threat comes at the ballot box tomorrow: In hopes of expanding their defiant faction to a majority, critics of the Rhee-Bloomberg-Vallas approach ran in the September Democratic Primary and, in an upset, beat the mayor’s favored candidates. On Tuesday, they’ll face off against Republican candidates in an election likely to leave the anti-Vallas, WFP-friendly faction with between four and six of the board’s nine votes. Assuming Vallas survives the lawsuit, whichever side holds a majority on the board will be positioned to determine his fate.

Defending his record, Vallas told the Atlantic’s Molly Ball in September, “We brought this district back from the brink without cutting a single teacher. If that’s controversy, it’s made-up controversy.”

“What we’ve seen since Paul Vallas became superintendent is much more of an emphasis on testing, and lots of cuts to services and programs that kind of make the school experience more comprehensive for students,” WFP’s Farrell countered last week. She cited students “being tested every six weeks.” Farrell told Salon that “If the team of five Democrats and Working Families Party candidates win, those policies will be rolled back. But they’ll be continued probably if we see the Republicans win.” If they take control, Farrell said, WFP-backed progressives would shift resources “back into the classroom,” because “There are some classrooms right now in Bridgeport where there are 40 students and one teacher. Nobody’s learning in that classroom.”

So who’s Mayor Finch rooting for: the Democrats who won his party’s primary, or the Republicans less likely to spar with his schools chief? “I look forward to working with the eventual winners to continue the needed progress in our school system for the good of our children within the fiscal limitations that confront us,” the mayor said in an emailed statement. Finch urged the election’s winners to “pursue every resource available for our children including continuing the private-public partnerships which have been extremely beneficial …” Finch’s office did not respond to a follow-up inquiry Friday morning about whom he’ll be pulling the lever for.

The WFP notes a sharp contrast between the Democratic Party’s efforts on behalf of its pro-Vallas candidates in the primary, and its approach to tomorrow’s showdown with the GOP. “The Democratic Party put a lot of resources into the mayor’s slate in the primary, and a lot of money,” said Farrell. “We haven’t really seen them doing anything to help the challengers who won in the primary in the general election.” She told Salon that “education budgets are large chunks of money, and you know, we’ve been really stunned by the lengths to which Mayor Bill Finch, and the Democratic Chair Mario Testa, and Paul Vallas will go to maintain power over those budgets.”

Some Bridgeport progressives take their allegations another step. Retired Judge Carmen Lopez, the local activist who filed the lawsuit against Vallas, told Salon she believes the mayor and his allies were “working to make sure that the Republicans win” because “that’s the only way that Finch could get what he wants, which is for Vallas to stay in power.” Voter Jessica Allen told Salon that City Council president Thomas McCarthy visited her house and, when she asked about education, told her that while “under normal circumstances I would never tell anybody to vote Republican,” in this case “you should be voting for [GOP contender] Larcheveque.” Allen said McCarthy told her the mayor “tried to make these fantastic changes, but everything that we try to do keeps getting blocked …” (Allen, a registered independent, told Salon she thinks “the schools are really screwed up” and “I don’t know what the right answer is.”) But Council member McCarthy told Salon in an email that he was “encouraging my constituents to vote all of Row B, the Democratic line.”

Lopez noted that the final pre-election campaign finance filings show a $50 donation to Larcheveque from the husband of Democratic state Rep. Auden Grogins. The Connecticut Post reported that Bridgeport Party Chair Mario Testa told a Democratic nominating convention in July, “My main concern is not the Republican Party. It’s the Working Families Party.” Calls to Testa’s number listed on the state party website were not answered, and no voice mail was available.

Tuesday’s election comes as some of Michelle Rhee’s antagonists argue they’ve reached a turning point in a national education reform debate in which they’ve long been playing defense.  American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told Salon last month that the lobby that supports “test-based accountability” and “creating choice at the expense of other public schools” has “dominated the first half” of the showdown, but “hasn’t proven their case, and in fact people are getting skeptical about it.” Weingarten, who has publicly supported union contract compromises that introduced "performance bonuses" or made it easier to fire teachers as well as the Chicago teachers' strike and Seattle teachers’ test boycott, argued most parents “actually trust teachers and even their unions and principals and parent associations hugely more than they trust the CEOs, the business types, or the governors.”

Traber, who leads a local affiliated with the country’s largest union, the National Education Association, acknowledged last year that the referendum rout didn’t itself reflect overwhelming opposition to Vallas’ favored education policies. “We determined that if we allowed them to define the question on the basis of fixing the schools – even though we don’t think their solution is going to fix the schools – that they would win,” he told Salon. “But if we argued the case on the question of, ‘Under what circumstances does a citizen have the right to vote?’ we would win.” WFP’s Farrell said the Bridgeport fight showed “that when parents and families and educators and community activists get engaged and get organized on education issues, they push back pretty heavily against mechanisms to privatize the system or to make their schools governed in a less democratic way.”

Ravitch, the author of "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools," told Bridgeport activists their state was a hotbed of “hedge fund people who’ve decided that they should take over the school system and charter-ize it. But you stopped them. You stopped them in their tracks. You give everybody a lot of hope.”

By Josh Eidelson

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