Voters Gave Corporate Education “Reform” a Big Defeat on Election Day

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Noa Bashuk uses a tablet to follow along with her teacher in an eighth grade Spanish class at Autrey Mill Middle School in Johns Creek, Ga. on Thursday, May 9, 2013. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Major electoral contests – governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, and wins by mayors-elect Martin Walsh in Boston and Bill de Blasio in New York City – caught progressives’ attention a week ago. Voters concerned about the future of public education, however, might want to pay more attention to what happened last week in Bridgeport, Conn. As this website and Salon both noted, that city’s school board race was among the top “under-the-radar” races to watch. Indeed, Bridgeport is a microcosm of education policy battles taking place across the country, and its activities have broad implications for many districts and states confronting similar issues.

Bridgeport is the largest school district in Connecticut – one of the nation’s wealthiest states and also the one with the largest achievement gaps – and among its lowest-performing (it ranks 159 out of 162 districts based on average student math and reading test scores). This should not be a surprise; Bridgeport was hard hit by the deindustrialization wave that swept across New England in the 1970s and 1980s and has since struggled to recover. In 2010, median household income in the racially mixed city was $34,658. In New Canaan, whose schools post the state’s highest average test scores, median household income among the town’s residents, 95 percent of whom are white, was $141,788.

Large achievement gaps in Bridgeport and other Connecticut cities led Gov. Dannel Malloy to advance a series of education policies, from substantial new investments in pre-K programs and in low-income school districts to tying teacher tenure to student test scores. The gaps have also drawn the attention of prominent self-proclaimed reformers, including NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former chancellor of the Washington, DC public schools Michelle Rhee as well as her Students First advocacy group. As such, Bridgeport has become an epicenter of increasingly heated battle over not only education policies, but also which voices should be central to the discussions about them.

After his election in 2011, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch (D) worked secretly to replace the elected local school board with one that he would appoint, a move that was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Finch also recruited Paul Vallas to be Bridgeport’s school superintendent. Many parents and teachers viewed Vallas – who had previously led the New Orleans and Philadelphia school districts – as dismissive of their input; the state National Education Association affiliate filed a complaint with the CT Department of Education on the grounds that he “shut teachers and parents out of discussions and decisions.” In 2012, Finch made a second attempt to control the school board by pushing a referendum – backed by cash from Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee – to end school board elections. Voters rejected this attempt by a 2-to-1 margin.

The changes touted by Vallas mirror those in other high-poverty urban districts: more testing, higher stakes attached to those tests, and promotion of charter schools as a solution, at the expense, parents told Salon, of “lots of cuts to services and programs that kind of make the school experience more comprehensive for students.” Among the cuts noted in a memorandum prepared by the Connecticut Working Families (CWF) party are substantial reductions in classroom supplies, special education funds, creative and elective programs, and “health and safety standards.”

“There are some classrooms right now in Bridgeport where there are 40 students and one teacher,” says Connecticut Working Families (CWF) Party executive director Lindsay Farrell. “Nobody’s learning in that classroom.” Parents in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City have voiced similar concerns. Finch’s appointment of a superintendent who lacks the administrative credentials required under state law meshes with reformers’ dismissal of traditional education experts. And his attempts to “take the politics out of” school boards to pave the way for his favored reforms echo those taken by leaders of other low-performing districts nationwide.

What makes Bridgeport different is how parents and teachers worked together to counter these attempts to stifle their voices and shut them out. The CWF party and teachers union jointly fielded candidates to oppose party-backed Democrats. In September, their three candidates beat the party’s candidates by two-to-one margins in the primaries, signaling the strength of the grass-roots effort and growing dissatisfaction with the policies of Finch and Vallas. Last week, they joined incumbent CWF school board member Sauda Baraka and Republican Joe Larcheveque to form a new, bipartisan 5-4 majority. Four days later, Vallas announced his resignation as superintendent.

Bridgeport now has the opportunity to provide a new model for both better policy and real democracy. It can join districts like Union City, New Jersey, and Montgomery County, Md., both of which are addressing poverty-related impediments to learning head-on rather than being distracted by more tests and charter schools. Union City has engaged in a slow, steady, 10-year effort involving more equitable school funding, high-quality pre-K, literacy-rich early elementary years and strong supports for teachers to boost the skills of its English-language learners. Parents are integral partners, not nuisances who stand in the way of real change. Montgomery County’s peer review-and-assistance program helps attract and retain some of the nation’s best teachers, who use in-depth data from their own assessments to improve instruction and make parents their partners in boosting achievement. Teachers are helped by the county’s smart mixed-use housing policy, health and income supports and redistribution of resources to the lowest-income schools.

Bridgeport also has a chance to refocus attention on the “public” in public education. It won the school board race by insisting that expert voices be heard. Teachers, principals and superintendents across the country agree: The past two years have produced the first-ever public letter by (NY) principals opposing state-mandated reforms at odds with parents’ and teachers’ beliefs as to what works, the first such letter by (Texas) superintendents demanding that the state stop its obsession with testing, and, most recently, a letter by Tennessee superintendents calling on their governor to stop the frontal assault on teachers by the state education commissioner (Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman).

The win in Bridgeport highlights the power of parents and teachers joining forces. It signals real hope for a return to education policy that is bipartisan, guided by evidence and both advanced and backed by true education experts – those who work and learn in classrooms every day.

Elaine Weiss, Economic Policy Institute
Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education (BBA), where she works with a high-level task force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.
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