Voters have spoken: No corporate school reform in Bridgeport!

By Wendy Lecker
Originally published on November 18, 2012 in the Stamford Advocate

In this age of instantaneous global communication, it is incredible that a simple message sent by voters in Bridgeport has not reached leaders in Hartford, just 50 miles away. On Nov. 6, a rare event in modern politics occurred: democracy prevailed over money. Average citizens defeated a Bridgeport charter revision proposal backed by a veritable who’s who of well-endowed corporate education reformers. This David-vs.-Goliath victory is also significant because it was the first time a core education reform strategy was put directly before Connecticut voters — and voters rejected it.

Recall that in July 2011, Mayor Bill Finch, the charter lobby ConnCAN, founders of ExcelBridgeport, and the chair of the state Board of Education engineered a secret and illegal takeover of Bridgeport’s elected board of education. After Connecticut’s Supreme Court invalidated the scheme, Mayor Finch again attempted to strip voters of their right to an elected school board with a revision to the city charter calling for an appointed board of education. This time, Finch called in the big guns. In addition to ExcelBridgeport and ConnCAN, the revision got support from the Connecticut Council on Education Reform, a business group, and national figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and failed DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

These “reformers” poured over a half a million dollars into ads, videos and pamphlets saying “Vote Yes.” They lauded the “progress” made in Bridgeport by the reformer Superintendent Paul Vallas, who left his previous districts, Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, in crisis. The hallmarks of Vallas’ tenure in Bridgeport so far have been adding an inexplicable and cruel three weeks of standardized testing, and increasing spending on administration. The “Vote Yes” group also made a host of false claims, ranging from assertions that only an appointed school board would help renovate buildings, to declarations that an appointed school board would lead to improved student outcomes, strict accountability for officials and increased parent involvement.

Placing control of school districts in the hands of one individual is a favorite tactic of so-called education reformers. Connecticut’s Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor deployed this strategy in New London and Windham, usurping the power of the elected school boards by installing a “special master” to run the districts. It is a popular reform, but an unsuccessful one.

Mayoral control in New York has disempowered parents and hurt students. Flouting vocal parent opposition, Mayor Bloomberg rammed through school closures and co-locations of charter schools inside public schools, displacing public school students. A recent report found that although communities attend hearings in full-force to protest the mayor’s education policies, they are “summarily ignored” by mayoral appointees. The mayor’s constant reorganizations have created chaos for parents and administrators. Student achievement under Bloomberg has not improved, and students of color have been hurt most.

In Chicago, parents and students charge that the wave of school closures by the mayorally appointed board tramples their rights and disproportionately hurts minority students. The reforms imposed by the board failed to improve achievement. Recently, parents and students in Chicago, together with those in nine other cities, including New York, filed a civil rights complaint over school closures. In a Nov. 6 referendum, 87 percent of Chicagoans voted to end mayoral control of the school board.

Bridgeport’s voters were not fooled by the reformers’ claims. A sound majority elected to retain their right to vote, maintaining public accountability for education.

The voters sent a clear message to the Bridgeport reformers. The message failed to reach Hartford, however. The day after the vote, the state Department of Education announced two new high-priced hires: Dianna Roberge-Wentzell as chief academic officer and Debra Kurshan as chief turnaround officer.

Roberge-Wentzell made her mark in Hartford by massively increasing standardized testing. Kurshan is a charter school advocate and, as Mayor Bloomberg’s appointee, presided over many of New York’s school closure and co-location hearings. A New York parent remarked that her Connecticut title should be “chief closing officer.”

Bridgeport voters rejected this failed reform agenda. Yet our state education leaders are plowing ahead with it. So let us spell it out for Hartford. Parents reject corporate reform but are committed to a quality education for all. Stop wasting tax dollars on harmful school closures and over-testing, and work with us to improve learning conditions with proven methods like quality pre-K, small classes, and support services for at-risk children. If you want to focus on children, listen to their parents.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is a former president of the Stamford Parent Teacher Council. She was staff attorney at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, plaintiffs in a school funding lawsuit in New York.

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