“A coalition of teachers, parents, local activists, working families, and good-government groups -- folks with a stake in the education system in Bridgeport -- came together and defeated the Bridgeport political machine,” said Lindsay Farrell, state director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, which backed the winning slate of insurgent candidates. “I think we have reason to be optimistic that the tide is turning against this corporate reform movement that Paul Vallas is the poster child for.”
The Bridgeport primaries were the latest front in the ongoing political war over American education. It’s a fight that has become intensely polarized, with reformers like Vallas and Michelle Rhee vilified by progressives and unions who see them as working to privatize public schools and undermine teacher unions.
Vallas's opponents say he has a record of closing schools, laying off teachers, privatizing school management, raiding pension funds, and funneling taxpayer dollars to for-profit education companies with dubious track records. Vallas says that in Bridgeport, he has not closed a single school, opened a single charter, or laid off a single teacher.
In an interview, he adamantly defended his record in Bridgeport, arguing that he’s ruffled feathers by making much-needed waves. “Anytime you push reform, you’re going to create controversy. Why? Because you’re upsetting the status quo,” he told me. “We closed a massive budget hole. We brought this district back from the brink without cutting a single teacher. If that’s controversy, it’s made-up controversy.”
The Vallas allies who lost last week were Democrats endorsed by the state Democratic Party and town Democratic committee and backed by the mayor. In a nearly 10-to-1 Democratic city, the primary winners are all but guaranteed to win the November elections and team up with Working Families Party members to form an anti-Vallas majority on the nine-member school board.
For the town’s Democratic machine, which has traditionally exerted tight control over municipal politics, it was a stunning and unprecedented defeat. “Definitely, I was surprised. Low turnout is usually good for the establishment,” said Mario Testa, the local Democratic boss who has chaired the town committee for most of the last two decades, running absentee-ballot operations and hosting state and national Democratic politicians at his Italian restaurant and pizzeria. “As long as I’ve been involved, it’s never happened.”
The new board members are determined to oust Vallas, Farrell told me, and begin searching for a new superintendent. They plan to undo Vallas’s reforms, including increased student testing, high-priced consultant contracts, and cuts to special education and electives.
The schools fight in Bridgeport actually predates Vallas; he was hired as part of a school-reform push by the state's Democratic elites. In 2011, after the Working Families Party won a minority of school-board seats and started using them to challenge the establishment, the state responded by eliminating the elected Bridgeport school board altogether. It was replaced with a board of mayoral appointees that hired Vallas.