Michelle Rhee's new spawn: Dem governor taps top charter-lover for ticket

Superintendent who spurred charter explosion in New Orleans and got spurned by CT voters is now an IL Dem nominee

Published November 11, 2013 3:15PM (EST)

Michelle Rhee                         (AP/Jeff Chiu)
Michelle Rhee (AP/Jeff Chiu)

The nation’s largest union panned the Friday afternoon announcement that Illinois’ Democratic governor is tapping an education reform lightning rod to join his reelection ticket.

“We are less than thrilled by the selection of Mr. Vallas,” Illinois Education Association president Cinda Klickna told Salon in a Friday email. “As head of the Chicago Public School System, he was known as a top-down administrator who routinely chose confrontation with the Chicago Teachers Union over collaboration.” Klickna's comments came in response to an inquiry to the IEA's parent union, the National Education Association. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who leads the country's other top teachers' union, sent Salon a three-word comment on Vallas' selection: "We were surprised."

As I’ve reported, Vallas is currently serving as superintendent of Bridgeport, Conn., schools, following past stints helming school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Chicago – each marked by conflict with critics of the bipartisan education reform consensus. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2006 that Vallas was “blasted” by the majority of the School Reform Commission, the agency overseeing city schools, for “his handling of a deficit that will force midyear cuts in the school system.” In New Orleans, PBS noted in 2010, “charters have exploded” from 2 percent to a majority of city schools. In Tuesday school board elections framed by activists as a referendum on the education agenda of Vallas and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, a dissident faction grew to a bare majority of the board’s nine seats, putting Vallas’ future there in jeopardy.

In an emailed statement, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn called Vallas “an independent problem solver with a proven record of reform” who would “be a strong Lt. Governor for the common good.” Vallas called Quinn “the strongest reform governor in the country,” and pledged that the two would “fight every day for working families and deliver the reform and change that Illinois deserves.” The Quinn campaign statement touted that Vallas “eliminated a $12 million budget deficit without closing a single school or laying off a single teacher” in Bridgeport, and “instituted major reforms, modernized the curriculum and put laptops and Smart boards in every high school classroom.” It also credited Vallas with accomplishments including having "raised test scores in New Orleans every year," leaving Chicago schools "with a $330 million surplus after inheriting a massive budget deficit," and "overhauling the district's curriculum" in Philadelphia.

“Paul Vallas is one of the least popular leaders among the rank-and-file educators in Chicago public schools we’ve ever had,” said laid-off teacher Xian Barrett, a former member of the Chicago Teachers Union executive board currently working for a nonprofit. Barrett cited Vallas’ moves that “reduced the power of the local schools councils,” and said before his 2001 departure he “was already laying the groundwork for a lot of the privatization movements” that progressed under his successor Arne Duncan, now President Obama’s education secretary. Barrett said Quinn’s choice of Vallas “reflects a disconnect between our state governance and the people, and specifically in this case a lot of the educators who’ve been Quinn’s greatest supporters his last time getting elected.” (The CTU, an AFT affiliate, did not respond to a Friday afternoon inquiry.)

Rob Traber, the vice president of Bridgeport Education Association, disputed Quinn’s praise for his new running mate. “I have seen nothing to show that he has been successful anywhere he’s gone, including Bridgeport,” Traber told Salon Friday. “And he has moved from one place to another and left it in worse shape than when he got there.” Traber contended Vallas and Finch had wrongly taken credit for construction of a new high school that “was already in the pipeline,” and that “the ‘miracle’ of balancing the budget” under Vallas was a response to “a budget crisis created by Finch.” Traber added that “the only reason it was balanced was Finch suddenly came up with money, which he hadn’t done for five years,” as did the state of Connecticut. “And so you know,” charged Traber, “that seems a little phony to me.” Like the IEA, the BEA is an affiliate of the NEA, the largest U.S. union.

Connecticut Working Families Party director Lindsay Farrell, whose organization played a key role in the Bridgeport school board takeover, last month told Salon that Vallas’ tenure there had been marked by “much more of an emphasis on testing,” including some students “being tested every six weeks,” and “lots of cuts to services and programs that kind of make the school experience more comprehensive for students.” Farrell e-mailed Friday that it was “not surprising Vallas is leaving town. His brand of corporate reform turned out to be toxic, and the voters have rejected him. But the last thing he deserves is a promotion.” On a national activist conference call last month, WFP volunteer and school parent Tammy Boyle slammed Vallas for “gutting our School Governance Councils” and said he “defunded special education and arts, and instead is pouring money into even more high-stakes testing.”

IEA’s Klickna, a high school English teacher, suggested that Gov. Quinn “should have spoken to the teachers of his state” if he wanted “a professional educator” on the ticket. “We know many qualified educators,” she said, “who actually live in Illinois, who could be outstanding running mates."

By Josh Eidelson

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