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Paul Vallas Faces ‘‘Absurd Drama’’

How bureaucracy is being used to keep a good man down

Laughter was my first reaction to news reports about a court ruling that deems Paul Vallas unqualified to lead Bridgeport, Conn.’s small school system. My reaction was echoed by a retired principal who interacted with him often when he supervised New Orleans’ Recovery School District.

“That’s a scream,” said Barbara MacPhee, who was vacationing in Santa Fe and hadn’t heard the news.

A “scream,” in popular lingo means about as funny as funny gets, too absurd to be believed. And “absurd” is the proper word to use in this situation.

Vallas, the man most responsible for New Orleans’ nationally celebrated RSD charter network, has been leading Bridgeport schools since December 2011, the Connecticut Post reported in June.

Responding to a lawsuit that questioned his qualifications, the newspaper reported that a judge has decided Vallas’ academic credentials don’t meet state standards.

The decision brings to mind a body of theatrical work known as “theater of the absurd.” Such plays as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot fall in that category, because the characters are typically caught in irrational situations that defy logic.

Vallas must have left the courtroom feeling like a character in an absurd drama. He served as CEO for schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, turned around failing schools in New Orleans, and influenced educational policy in Haiti and Chile, but isn’t qualified to govern 37 floundering schools in Bridgeport?

 Clearly, his success in a field he wasn’t academically trained to work in is off-putting to some people. Educators who climbed the ladder the hard way, through teaching, doctoral programs in education and mid-level administrative posts, sometimes resent Vallas’ meteoritic rise to power through a political backdoor. A former budget analyst, Vallas was appointed CEO of Chicago’s troubled schools by then-Mayor Richard Daley. Chicago led him to Philadelphia and a reputation as a school turnaround expert. His success in New Orleans cinched that reputation.

A doctorate in education or something similar is a reasonable and common requirement for a school superintendent, but many state officials waive it when they want to hire a proven, non-traditional candidate like Vallas. Connecticut’s state law on the subject is so far proving more difficult to dismiss.

The judge in Connecticut decided that Vallas should be removed as Bridgeport’s superintendent because he hasn’t completed an adequate leadership program at the University of Connecticut. Upon appointment, the Connecticut Post said he’d been given leave by officials to take a shortened version of the 13-month UConn program, but the judge considered the completed effort “a sham.”

An appeal to Connecticut’s Supreme Court protects Vallas’ position for the moment. The outcome of that appeal may influence an ongoing debate about superintendents’ qualifications.

A wiry man of thinning hair and fast speech, Vallas’ perpetual motion personality tends to draw as many critics as admirers. One critic mused that he appears to have an attention deficit disorder. His hopscotch career and glued-to-the-cell-phone habits annoy people.   
 
As a journalist, I appreciated Vallas’ straightforward, shoot-from-the-hip approach to communication and his decisive manner. A man in a hurry tends to get to the point. I saw him in action often during his three-year stint in New Orleans. In a 2009 news conference held by the Rethinkers, a youth activist group, he agreed to some of their requests for changes in schools but said he would never agree to removing metal detectors because “everyone seems to be packing.”

 He throws out ideas at lightning speed, makes use of the best ones and then moves on to the next challenge when the balls he put in motion are spinning too fast to stop. That was his modus operandi in New Orleans. When he took over the majority of New Orleans’ storm damaged schools in 2007, two years after the state seized them because they were “failing,” he became impatient with continued poor performance and handed over the lowest performers to semi-autonomous charter operators.

When he left in 2010 to help Haiti restore its schools after a devastating earthquake, 71 percent of the New Orleans’ schools were charters, Tulane University’s Cowen Institute’s 2011 report shows. Today more than 80 percent are charters. That shift has made all the difference to the future of thousands of school children because RSD charters have raised students’ test scores dramatically over the years.
The institute’s 2013 report shows that the percentage of all RSD students, chartered and traditional, who score “basic” or above for all grades and all subjects has increased from 37 percent in ’09 to 57 percent in ’13. That achievement is the result of hard work by scores of teachers and principals, but Vallas’ leadership set the foundation for it.

An analyst writing for a Fordham Institute study on the RSD last year praised Vallas’ willingness to be a “bull in a china shop.” His willingness to dissemble and recreate better performing schools in New Orleans wins him accolades from reformers, but frightens those whose livelihoods depend on the status quo. Charter schools aren’t bound by collective bargaining agreements, which weaken teacher unions, and they aren’t managed by elected school boards.

As a central figure in the nationwide struggle between traditional school advocates and all sorts of “reformers” and their initiatives, Vallas is a symbol of unsettling change as much as he is a man, so it isn’t surprising that he finds himself the target of a lawsuit to unseat him.

Brian Riedlinger, founder and former superintendent of the Algiers Charter Schools Association and CEO of the School Leadership Center, said that commonly held professional credentials may not ensure a good superintendent, but a recognized standard should be necessary “at that level, just like a lawyer should pass the bar.”  
 
Maybe so, but after 20 years of challenging on-the-job training, Vallas could write the exam.

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