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A Connecticut judge’s order that Paul G. Vallas, who has run some of the largest school systems in the country, must leave his post as the superintendent in Bridgeport because of a lack of formal certification highlights some of the tensions in national debates over superintendents’ qualifications and state interventions in struggling urban districts.
Though Mr. Vallas, a former budget director for Chicago mayor Richard Daley, has garnered national attention as a district leader in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Louisiana’s state-run Recovery School District, he was never fully certified to be a superintendent in Connecticut.
In a strongly worded June 28 ruling that is being appealed, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis said that a state board-approved independent study taken by Mr. Vallas at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education was a course rather than the leadership program he was required to take under a state law passed last year.
Judge Bellis also found that, although his professor gave him an A for his efforts, Mr. Vallas did not actually complete the independent study—which had never been used for any other district leader in the state—in the form approved by the state board of education. That means, the ruling said, that Mr. Vallas was ineligible for the waiver from state certification requirements granted to him by state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.
Staying for Now
The Connecticut Supreme Court announced that Mr. Vallas, who has courted his share of controversy, can remain the district’s superintendent while the case is being appealed. The court will hear arguments in late September.
“We’re going to keep on doing what we do until the courts tell us we can’t do it,” Mr. Vallas said in an interview with Education Week.
Carmen Lopez, the retired superior court judge who brought the case against Mr. Vallas’ appointment, said her action was prompted by a series of decisions—including his appointment—that state officials had made about the 21,000-student system without the input of Bridgeport residents. The school board that hired Mr. Vallas was state-appointed rather than elected. Mr. Vallas’ entry into his position was eased by Commissioner Pryor, Ms. Lopez said.
“Paul Vallas was imposed on the city,” she said. “Then we find out that he lacks something as basic as having certification.
“There is a movement in this country to change education as we know it, and you start that where people are vulnerable,” she said. “There’s never any discussion with the people, who are looked on as incompetent. ... The only recourse we have is the court.”
Despite the court ruling, Mr. Vallas says the independent study allowed him to show he met state standards, which should permit him to be superintendent in Bridgeport, the state’s second largest district and also one of its poorest.
“This is about more than certification,” Mr. Vallas said. “If I’d taken a longer course, they’d have found something else to sue the district over,” he said. “This is about maintaining the status quo.”
Other superintendents who have come to districts from nontraditional backgrounds, such as business or the military, have had their credentials questioned and, in some cases, seen their education careers come to an end.
Cathleen P. Black, who was named the chancellor of the New York City schools in 2011 after holding top executive posts in magazine publishing, drew heat for having no experience working in education. Like Mr. Vallas, Ms. Black was granted a waiver by the state’s education commissioner that permitted her to lead the nation’s largest school system. She left the job, however, after 95 days.
Other prominent district schools chiefs in recent years have not had traditional administrator credentials, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who became the CEO of Chicago’s schools after serving under Mr. Vallas; Michelle A. Rhee, who led the District of Columbia’s school system; and Anthony J. Tata, who headed the district in Wake County, N.C.
The fact that in Bridgeport the issue has been taken to court is unusual, however.
Became superintendent in Bridgeport, Conn.
Education consultant for government of Haiti after 2010 earthquake; education consultant for government of Chile.
Served as superintendent of the Recovery School District, La., where he helped oversee the rebuilding of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. He closed direct-run schools and opened charter schools, seeking to create what he described as a “system of schools” rather than a “school system.”
Became CEO of Philadelphia school district immediately after a state takeover gave control of many of the schools to private managers and universities. He replaced K-8 schools with elementary and middle schools, promoted a zero-tolerance discipline policy, and opened more than 60 charter schools.
Gubernatorial candidate in Illinois, losing Democratic primary to now-former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Was the first mayorally appointed CEO of Chicago’s public schools. He sought to end automatic grade promotion, required summer school for more students, opened many magnet, alternative, and charter schools, and balanced the district’s budget.
Budget director for city of Chicago under Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Executive director of the Illinois legislature’s economic and fiscal commission.
Illinois National Guard
Master’s degree in political science, Western Illinois University
Bachelor’s degree in political science and history, Western Illinois University
SOURCE: Education Week
“This is the first situation I’ve seen where a major city superintendent’s credentials were the subject of a lawsuit,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents large urban districts.
As of 2005, 44 states required some sort of specific education program or certification for their superintendents, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
Particularly in large urban systems, though, superintendents from outside the education world are hardly a new phenomenon, said Mr. Casserly.
“There probably ought to be changes in state laws in a way that would allow nontraditional superintendents to lead at least major-city school districts,” he said. In most cases, a state waiver is granted or the path is cleared at the legislative level for a nontraditional leader to take the helm, and the issue never reaches a court, said Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University.
Mr. Vallas said he had not been required to take any course for his district positions in Chicago, Philadelphia, or Louisiana.
Mr. Casserly questioned whether a course would have helped Mr. Vallas become a better superintendent. “Frankly, there’s no paper or credential that could be added to his résumé that would somehow make him more skilled,” he said.
Jeffrey Henig, a professor of education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the dispute over Mr. Vallas’ credentials was evidence of a bigger battle.
“There’s a strong sense within most of the traditional education community that standards and regulations that were meant to ensure expertise and training in things like pedagogy and curriculum are being eroded by a broad assault on these traditional institutions,” he said.
“The irony is that these very regulations that the contemporary school reform movement is complaining about were promulgated, in the early 20th century, by the reformers of that day,” Mr. Henig said. “These were the tools for ensuring that local and state party machines didn’t award these positions based on loyalty.”
The recent turmoil over school governance in Bridgeport began in 2011, when the school system was placed under mayoral control by the state board of education, though the Connecticut Supreme Court later ruled that the action was not constitutional. Mr. Vallas was elected by the mayorally appointed board after meeting Mr. Pryor in Haiti, where both men were doing post-earthquake relief work, and being introduced to city board members, the superintendent said.
The city’s school board became an elected body again after the supreme court ruling, with some members who vehemently opposed Mr. Vallas’s policies. But that elected board eventually voted 5-4 in favor of keeping Mr. Vallas as a superintendent and awarded him a three-year contract. That same divide has remained consistent in school board votes this spring.
An informal poll conducted by the Connecticut Post’s website found, as of July 17, that only 17 percent of readers believed that Mr. Vallas was qualified for his job.
Mr. Vallas’ legal fees are being paid by the city school board.
“The fact that there’s tension and conflict politically over who should be calling the shots in Bridgeport makes the earlier effort to bring mayoral control relevant,” Mr. Henig said. “There’s a component of the community that feels that reform is being driven largely by outside actors.”
Ms. Lopez, who brought the legal challenge against the selection of Mr. Vallas, said that she was wary of his record in other places he’d worked, where the charter sector has grown significantly while district schools have been closed.
“Community schools are important in Bridgeport,” she said. She also expressed concern about more standardized tests being used in schools, and about new military schools that have opened in the district. “I wonder if he thinks that’s the only way black and Latino kids can learn, to impose military schools on them,” she said. “They wouldn’t do this in the suburbs.”
No new charter schools have opened in Bridgeport during Mr. Vallas’ tenure, though he touted a new military academy in an interview. The district’s budget deficit, meanwhile, has been reduced. Mr. Vallas said that while he had made cuts at the central-office level, no schools had been closed, and big layoffs had been avoided. “If the [state supreme] court rules against us, which I don’t believe they will, then so be it. It’s not like we haven’t made significant progress,” Mr. Vallas said. “The issue for the city will be: Can you maintain the investment that we’ve made? Can you implement it to its fruition?”
As far as the implications for other cities with nontraditional superintendents, Mr. Casserly of the Great City Schools said that “it’s a little hard to believe someone hasn’t thought of [challenging a controversial leader’s credentials in court] before, … but I’m pretty confident in saying someone will think of it again.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Bridgeport Schools Chief’s Future in Doubt