Pssst!....Say no to Paul Vallas for mayor....but don't pass it on

You'd better read this post in a whisper. Some folks would rather not talk about this, and I kind of get it, but I just think before things get out of hand around here there's some things we need to know. So here's some secrets. Don't pass them on. Or do. 

Really, do whatever you think is best. 

Word is, Paul Vallas is contemplating a run for mayor. Of Chicago. He even quit his job in order to contemplate this.

Your average garden variety Chicagoan will remember his name and probably have decent associations with it. Wasn't he CEO of CPS? Hasn't he done a lot of stuff? Isn't he pretty capable?

Most of all, isn't he not Rahm?

Yes. Yes to all of that.

Some folks who know a bit about education might have further associations with Vallas, like: Didn't he turn around several struggling school districts? All over the country?

Yup. In fact folks at the Tribune are crowing about all that already. First in Philly, then in Louisiana, Vallas was at the helm of large, troubled urban school districts. (Of course, the Tribune sure loves them some Hurricane Katrina.) He even shipped off to post-earthquake Haiti schools for a spell.

But before we get too excited about this guy re-entering the Illinois political fray, I want you all to know just what he did in all those school district leadership roles. He has, in fact, been an extremely significant figure on the American education landscape for the last 23 years.

Paul Vallas is quite possibly the original corporate education privatizer.

And he has spread that gospel everywhere he has gone, leaving an indelible mark by means of outsourcing, closing schools, firing entire staffs, spending big, slashing fast, mass layoffs, and test score worship. To public education advocates, he's Chainsaw Paul the serial privatizer. "Vallas hit upon the expedient of disbanding and dissolving whole schools," writes Bruce Dixon in 2014, "and reconstituting them as private entities, charter schools." Innovation at its most innovative. 

(I have to pause and point out here that he is a Democrat, just by the by.)

The truth is, the media loves the narrative of disruption/destruction and rising from the ashes with regard to our nation's schools. And the connected idea of "choice" sounds so.....freedomy. Most of our politicians on both sides of the aisle also love these notions too, as they allow politicians to utter sexy phrases like "ending the status quo" and "the new civil rights of our time." They are guided, for some reason, in all matters educational, by our corporate leaders, who love anything that necessitates selling stuff, and have taught us all to believe that everything must be "run like a business." So because of this lock on culture that our education privatizers have, most of what you may have read about the districts Vallas has led will be positive. But if you look a little closer, the shine wears off.

Regarding Philadelphia, Vallas's first post after departing Chicago, you will find a spectrum of perspectives, all emphasizing his speed and spending. 2002's "Miracle Worker" gushes about the district's wondrous new morale, while 2007's "Power: Reformer R.I.P." narrates the moment when Vallas learned of a ballooning budget deficit 5 years into his term and famously, publicly "blew a gasket," and his subsequent loss of support from the district's School Reform Commission. "Vallas leaves a changed district--again in tumult," outlines a piece in The Notebook, a Philadelphia education journal. The list of his efforts and impact in this piece will be, I suspect, very familiar and very uncomfortable to Chicagoans.

After he left Philadelphia--dismissed, or resigned, there are different narratives--Vallas went to Louisiana post-Katrina to work his speedy magic in a situation of great need. Mass layoffs and school closures paved the way for the almost complete privatization in New Orleans. Though some still refer to what happened in the Louisiana Recovery District as positive, many question that narrative, pointing to a district that is almost impossible to navigate for special ed students and whose schools are not, in fact, improved, though the teaching staff is now much whiter. "[S]choolchildren in New Orleans," observed Mike Ludwig in 2016, "are crossing busy, four-lane roads to reach charter schools located neighborhoods away from the shuttered school buildings sitting vacant on their own streets." I shared many of these perspectives in a blog post shortly after the Tribune's Kristen McQueary wrote her famous editorial longing for a Katrina in CPS. McQueary's piece was offensive, but also, she was just plain wrong about New Orleans schools.

One of those I cited, Louisiana teacher and PhD Mercedes Schneider, has heard the rumors about Vallas's maybe-mayoral run recently too. It prompted her to share a few passages of the book she wrote, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education. Vallas gets three chapters devoted to his efforts in New Orleans and beyond. The upshot is this: "For almost two decades, Paul Vallas has sold himself as a corporate reformer. He is willing to slash tight budgets, and he is willing to mismanage ample budgets. He is willing to privatize districts, close schools, and fire teachers. He is willing to sacrifice all of those below him in a given district for the test scores, graduation rates, or school performance scores that he cannot seem to consistently raise. He has, however, managed to consistently collect fine salaries with benefits based on the unfounded reputation he has as a reforming miracle man." A miracle man who has left all the districts he's helmed in financial chaos and academically unchanged.

And now he's back. Wanting a bigger stage than he's ever had here to conduct his business-minded, public-service-slashing, corporate water boy work. As if Chicago needs another neoliberal white patriarch to somehow undo the damage Rahm's wrought?

And so I'm telling you, do not encourage this man's campaign. We don't want him back here. But I'm telling you in a whisper because some folks say to me, Hey! Don't discourage Vallas--a three-way battle between Rahm, Vallas, and that other mayoral tease, Garry McCarthy, just might open up the field for another candidate...a candidate of color. But that's crazy talk! That could never work--could it?

Follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Leave a comment