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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Law & Courts Opinion

The Bridgeport Mess: Vallas Camp Is Right on Merits, Not on Law

By Rick Hess — July 11, 2013 2 min read
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Yesterday, a Superior Court judge ruled that Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas must resign his post immediately. It was the latest development in a saga that’s stretched over the past few weeks, and that will continue as Vallas appeals that decision. The problem? Vallas lacks the administrative certifications required by Connecticut law.

It’s summer and people have other things on the their minds, so I’ll just make two points. First, on the substance, I think this was an unfortunate decision. I tend to agree with Connecticut’s governor, Democrat Dannel Malloy, who opined, “Do I think that someone who was superintendent of Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans is qualified to be a superintendent in the state of Connecticut? The answer is yes.” For what it’s worth, I think it’s bizarre that we’d allow paper credentials from programs with lackluster reputations disqualify a candidate with an extensive track record. Seems to me like it makes a lot more sense to just judge Vallas on what he’s done, his skills, and his temperament. I think Vallas is an impressive guy and that it’d be a bad thing if he were actually pushed out of office. More generally, I have problems with the underlying logic of administrative license. If you’re interested, I spelled the reasoning out at some length, a decade ago, in “A License to Lead?”.

Second, however, whatever I happen to think of the law, it is in fact the law. If Connecticut statute or regulation requires certain credentials, then that’s the deal -- until someone changes what’s on the books or how it’s interpreted. I understand the frustration and disappointment of Vallas supporters, but we are a nation of laws. It may be frustrating or inconvenient, but would-be reformers have to take responsibility for changing those laws -- not just lament them or try to bypass them.

Thus, I felt more than a touch of schadenfreude when I read some of the reactions to the decision by those I like and respect. ConnCAN acting CEO Jennifer Alexander said, “Today’s ruling serves as yet another example of petty politics getting in the way of strengthening Bridgeport’s public education system. It is short-sighted and heartbreaking.” Our earnest Secretary of Education told the Huffington Post he thought it “fascinating” that a superintendent with Vallas’ track record would get ousted this way (remember that Sec. Duncan got his start working for Vallas). It’d be one thing if Alexander or Duncan were saying that the judge got the law wrong. But, because they’re troubled by the outcome, it seems they want the judge to disregard the law.

Again, I agree with Alexander’s and Duncan’s sentiment. But, here’s the thing: public schools spend taxpayer money to educate the community’s children. Thus, voters and their elected representatives will and should write the rules about how those schools will be governed. If they want a different set of rules, they need to change ‘em. But, as I noted in Cage-Busting Leadership, would-be reformers have generally not done nearly enough to identify these kinds of outdated rules or questionable bottlenecks or to scrub them away through legislation or regulatory reform. Instead, whether dealing with licensure, permissible use of federal funds, textbook procurement, reporting requirements, teacher-of-record requirements, and such, they’ve favored high-minded speeches over clearing the detritus.

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