Florida’s Standardized Testing Disaster – “Education Reform” At Its Worst

Like the car accident that you can’t take your eyes off of, the incredible standardized test debacle that is playing itself out in Florida is a stunning lesson about how out of control the “education reformers” have become.

Their mantra there, as it is here in Connecticut, is that standardized testing is the only way to force teachers to teach and children to learn.  Most importantly, they claim, the standardized tests are needed in order to evaluate which teachers to keep and which to remove.

As many now know, the Florida Department of Education recently released the test scores on their FCAT 2.0 standardized tests.  The percentage of Florida students who scored “at goal” had dropped from 81 percent to 27 percent.  Within twenty-four hours, Florida’s Board had met, reduced the number needed to reach goal and announced that, in fact, 4 out of 5 students did reach goal.

So much for the $254 million contract to develop and administer Florida’s testing program.

As we saw over the last five months, here in Connecticut Governor Malloy and the “education reformers” are demanding the creation of even more standardized tests.

Malloy’s original bill proposed a whole new round of testing in 11th grade and the bill that did pass will institute new testing in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

And still these reformers want more.

Like all students in Connecticut, Bridgeport’s students completed the statewide mastery tests in March.  But then, despite facing a budget shortfall and laying off dozens of teachers, School Superintendent Paul “education reformer extraordinaire” Vallas,  announced that he was instituting yet another full round of standardized tests in June because he believes that more testing is the only way to prevent teachers from allowing a “lull” in learning to take place in their classrooms.  As to the cost of this extra round of testing, Vallas says he got a very good deal.

An editorial commentary piece published this week in the Orlando Sentinel called up state officials to “”stop this madness.”

The commentator wrote;

“Of course, whether or not students learn should be part of a teacher’s and administrator’s evaluation, but when you have high stakes for students, teachers and administrators and little or no accountability for the $254 million contract lawmakers have given to the testing company, something is wrong.

Let us hold lawmakers and the testing company accountable, and let teachers teach and students learn. We must end high-stakes testing, and instead develop a system based on multiple forms of measurement that is fair for all.

Countries that we are often compared to, such as Finland and Singapore, do not use high-stakes testing to judge students and teachers. We should not, either.”

Yet Stefan Pryor, Governor Malloy’s Commissioner of Education, wants to INCREASE the number of standardized tests and require that school districts rely even more on the results.

Adding insult to injury, when he faced public criticism earlier this week, he and his team of out-of-state consultants went so far as to block the media and public from attending the meetings in which they were talking about these matters.

Although forced to change course and allow the media and public back in to the meetings, the Malloy Administration still doesn’t get it.

At the next meeting, Elizabeth Shaw, who works for Education First, Inc. and is one of Commissioner Pryor’s $60,000 short-term consultants to help him with his “education reform” initiative, announced “Something is different at this meeting. At this meeting — in the interest of transparency — the state department has invited the press to join us.”

Something different?  The media and public allowed into a public meeting?

But more to the point, Pryor and company continue down the path of implementing a system in which standardized tests play an even more important role in Connecticut’s schools.

The author of the Orlando Sentinel piece could not be more correct, it is time to stop this madness.  Our children, our teachers and the America’s public school system deserve.

 Side Note on Malloy’s Consultant (more to come on this piece): 

This Elizabeth Shaw, Pryor’s point person on expanding the use of standardized test in Connecticut?

Well she started her “education reform” career with Teach for America in Philadelphia (where Paul Vallas was heading the school system).  She quickly got promoted to TFA’s Director of District Strategy where her job was to “manage relationships” with the school district.  She then moved to the New Orleans Recovery School District (Yes, the one that Paul Vallas was the superintendent for) where she quickly moved up through the ranks to become Director of Human Resources.

Shaw then moved from New Orleans to join Education First, Inc.

Turns out Shaw is from Chicago, her father was one of Vallas’ biggest supporters when Vallas ran for Governor in Illinois and at least one Chicago blogger has reported that Shaw’s mother is best friends with Vallas’ wife.

And Education First, Inc.?  They are one of the firms that Pryor instructed SERC (the State Education Resources Center) to hire with state funds on a no-bid contract to help him with linking standardized tests and teacher evaluation.

What a strange coincidence that Paul Vallas is now in Bridgeport where he is being paid $229,000 while collecting a $1 million dollar contract from the State Board of Education in Illinois.

Malloy Makes It Clear: Your State Senator is Your Business, Your Board of Education Member is My Business.

You can call it an interesting commentary on politics and the control of education resources or you could call it yet another installment in the “you just can’t make this stuff up” saga that continues to swirl around the “education reform movement” in Connecticut.

This week, the Bridgeport Democratic Party selected former State Senator Ernie Newton to be their candidate for a seat in the Connecticut State Senate.  Newton, a former Bridgeport state representative and state senator served four years in federal prison after being convicted of soliciting a bribe in return for his help to get a $100,000 state contract to a particular local vendor.  Newton was Bridgeport’s state senator at the time.

When asked about Newton’s nomination, Governor Malloy said that the Democratic Party’s decision to select Newton as their candidate was a “local issue” and that he is a believer in “second chances” for convicted felons.

Newton beat out the incumbent state senator, Ed Gomes, and Bridgeport state representative Andres Ayala for the nomination.  Both Gomes and Ayala received enough votes to force an August 14, 2012 Democratic primary.

Readers will remember that it was just last summer that Governor Malloy and his Administration moved to take over the Bridgeport school system, remove the locally elected board and replace them with a new, state-appointed board that would implement a series of “education reforms” supported by the Malloy Administration, Bridgeport’s Mayor and a group of local corporate leaders.  In fact, once appointed, the new board did move quickly to remove Bridgeport’s superintendent of schools and replace him with “education reformer extraordinaire,” Paul Vallas.  Vallas has, in turn, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to retain a wide variety of consultants to remake Bridgeport’s schools.

Although Connecticut law does allow the state to intervene and “take over” failing school systems under limited circumstances, the law requires that the state must provide the local, elected board of education a “second chance”, along with additional training and support, before it can move to take over the school system.

Since the Malloy Administration refused to follow that law, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state’s action was illegal and ordered the elected board to be reinstated following a special election to fill vacancies on the board.  That special election is coming up and an elected board of education will be re-taking control of the Bridgeport school system.

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch has strongly opposed Newton’s candidacy.  But, when the media asked Malloy about his attitude toward Newton’s nomination, the Governor said “it’s a local issue; first and foremost….the people of Bridgeport have a decision to make.”

What makes the statement so interesting is that just last summer, Mayor Finch and the Malloy Administration worked hand in hand to plan and implement the state’s attempted takeover of the Bridgeport Schools.  According to the email trail left behind, the state’s decision to intervene was based, in no small part, on the fact that the Mayor and key corporate leaders in the Bridgeport area did not like what the local board of education was doing and felt their best course of action was to have the state remove Bridgeport’s elected board of education members from office.

The net effect of this display of political power is that the Governor of Connecticut is now on record as saying that Bridgeport’s choice as to whom they want to represent them in Hartford is up to the voters, but these same voters are not equipped to select whom they want to serve on the local board of education.

And that is a not so subtle reminder that education policy is often driven by political considerations.

“Tutoring Doesn’t Work” (According to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan)

No really, that’s what Secretary of Education said and while he doesn’t have any real education or teaching experience, he did go to Harvard (for sociology) so he must know these things.

As a result of this news, I spent Sunday afternoon writing a letter of concern to the Mansfield Board of Education.  You see, the Mansfield Middle School Parent’s Association Newsletter just arrived.  It leads with a picture and article bragging “These are some of the 80 UConn undergraduates who volunteered during the spring semester to work 1:1 with MMS students during X-Block…”  It says that UConn Students helped Middle school students “work on homework completion, organization, and study skills each week.”  Mrs. Dickinson, an award winning science teacher even took time out to make a cake for the UConn tutors as a way to say thank you.

Now I don’t want to be the village antagonist, but quite frankly, if tutoring is a waste, as Secretary Duncan has told us, then our schools shouldn’t be doing it.

The troubling news about the ineffectiveness of tutoring arrived via an Associated Press story that ran in the Washington Post and other newspapers around the nation.  The story covered a recent speech by Secretary Duncan in which he criticized the Florida Legislature for passing a new law requiring that Florida school districts continue their tutoring services despite the fact that Florida was one of states that received a No Child Left Behind waiver this year.

Secretary Duncan informed that audience that tutoring has been proven ineffective, pointing to a new U.S. Department of Education study that examined the results of the No Child Left Behind tutoring programs in six states, including Connecticut.

The study found that tutoring leads to “no statistically significant impact” on performance in reading or math. (Although to be fair to tutors, Duncan didn’t say whether the tutoring in question was actually related to reading and math.)

It turns out that despite the Department of Education report, Florida had decided to continue to require tutoring for low-income students.  Duncan’s response was “I find it ironic that Washington is offering flexibility but Tallahassee is taking it away.”

Maybe a course about federalism was not required in Harvard’s sociology department.

Apparently Florida’s Education Commissioner was a bit miffed by Duncan’s remarks and responded with “suggesting that our state and our legislators were not acting in the best interest of Florida’s children reinforces how important it is that our state be allowed to chart a course that is right for Florida.”  (I wonder what all the Republican Congressman from Florida who voted for No Child Left Behind thought of that shot).

Anyway, after a bit more digging, it turns out Duncan’s comments were actually reflective of a slightly different issue.  The U.S. Department of Education has become increasingly concerned that that the private companies being hired by school districts to provide “tutoring services” aren’t actually delivering on what they are being contracted for.

Apparently Duncan may not have been referring to all tutoring, just the tutoring provided by the private companies, which would certainly be a bit of an embarrassment for the “education reformers” who claim privatizing educational services is the key to successfully reforming America’s education system.

It is pretty ironic that Arne Duncan, the protégée of our own Paul Vallas, (Bridgeport’s $229,000 part-time “reform” superintendent), is now charging that the private companies that are being hired by school districts are not being effective nor are they being held accountable for the failure of their programing.

Sadly, the reporter didn’t know to call Paul Vallas in Bridgeport or Steve Adamowski in Windham, both of whom have been hiring more private education consultants and firms, with our public dollars, in order to do work the work that is supposed to be done by the public sector.

In fact, faced with limited resources in Bridgeport and Windham, both of these “education reformers” have laid off Connecticut public employees to make room for the out-of-state consultants and companies.

Apparently education reformers are exempt from the Governor’s initiative to retain and create Connecticut jobs for Connecticut residents.

And meanwhile, instead of tutoring middle school students, hopefully UConn and Mansfield can find something more productive to do with the college students who volunteer to tutor next year.

You can find the AP story here:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/arne-duncan-questions-why-fla-legislature-passed-law-requiring-ineffective-tutoring-services/2012/05/17/gIQAuCuPWU_story.html

Hey, Over Here… I got this standardized test for yah… Cheap.

Three weeks ago came the news that  Bridgeport Superintendent  Paul Vallas and the corporate reformers who are busy “turning around” the Bridgeport School System decided to add another round of standardized tests to finish up the school year (even though the state-wide Connecticut Mastery Tests just took place only a few weeks ago.)  See Wait What? More Standardized Testing, Hooray!

Vallas’s Chief Administrative Officer informed Bridgeport’s teachers about the development with a memo that read “…there will be end-of-year testing in English Language Arts and mathematics that will mirror the CMT and CAPT examinations.  These tests will be administered to all students in Grades 3-11 during the week of June 4th, including Grades 9 and 11 who do not take state assessments.”

According to this new Vallas Doctrine, “traditionally, instruction wanes after the administration of the state tests.  Unfortunately, this ‘lull’ in teaching and learning deprives our students of much-needed academic support.”

Sadly Vallas’ team of administrators and consultants failed to provide any evidence to back up their claim and, of course, classroom teachers know that it is only after the tests are done that some of the “real learning” begins.

But Bridgeport is not alone, Connecticut’s recently adopted “education reform” law institutes a new system of standardized reading tests in Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade.  Apparently legislators were persuaded that starting the standardized testing process in 3rd grade was just way too late for children’s development.

Back in Bridgeport, neither Vallas nor anyone in his operation explained how that school system, which is already facing a deficit, will come up with the funds needed to buy and score nearly 20,000 standardized tests, but you can bet they aren’t being delivered by the copy center at Staples.

Preparing and scoring standardized tests is big business…

And not just any company has the expertise to develop these tests.

It takes special talents.

For example, the Associated Press recently wrote about the standardized testing situation in New Jersey where Governor Christi, like Governor Malloy, is a big fan of having more standardized testing.

The AP wrote that a recent New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge test included asking some third-graders “to write about a secret and why it was hard to keep.”

After some parents raised concerns, including the question of what happens if a child’s secret has to do with a crime; the state’s Education Department said they were reviewing what had occurred and would then make a decision about whether to keep the question as part of the test.

Meanwhile, it was reported that in New York, the education department decided not to count six multiple-choice questions in that state’s eighth-grade reading exam because, upon review, it was determined that the questions that followed a passage “about a hare and a talking pineapple” did not make sense.

New York officials also admitted that the standardized math tests given in 4th and 8th grade included errors.

Not to worry though, standardized test scores are really only intended to provide teachers and administrators with a sense of how the student is doing…oh and soon they will also count for 22 to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

But think about it, as long as the questions are wrong for every child, no one teacher will be disproportionately impacted.

For the AP story go to http://online.wsj.com/article/AP474d1eae404746a8afa7174eac05333b.html

And from the most recent Connecticut Department of Education Report:

“The CMT assesses approximately 250,000 students on their application of skills and knowledge in the academic content areas of mathematics, reading and writing in Grades 3 through 8, and science in Grades 5 and 8. This year marks the sixth administration of the Fourth Generation CMT, which was first administered in March 2006. The March 2006 administration serves as a baseline year for examining changes in student performance over the course of the Fourth Generation.”  The report can be found here:  http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF%5Cpressroom%5C2011_CMT_Press_Release.pdf

Vallas Says No Prob – $1M deal won’t affect his work in Bridgeport

Somewhere between “Look Ma, No Hands” and the 2008 hit “Handlebars” by the rock band Flobots (lyrics: “I can ride my bike with no handlebars, No handlebars, No handlebars”), stands education reformer extraordinaire Paul Vallas who, as we predicted yesterday, announced today that there is absolutely no problem because he can be both superintendent of schools in Bridgeport ($229,000 a year plus benefits) and take on a $1 million dollar contract to “repair low-performing schools in his home state of Illinois” without breaking a sweat.

My personal recommendation is for every one of Connecticut’s 45,000 teachers and 9,000 school administrators to drop a note to your local board of education tomorrow informing them that starting next September you plan not only to be teaching (or administrating) full-time but that you are also planning to have another job outside of school but that they needn’t worry that the other job will get in the way.

Besides, as Vallas pointed out to the Connecticut Post today, the new million dollar contract is actually with The Vallas Group and not Paul Vallas directly.  His role is only to “provide guidance and direction” or as he says “my role is going to be modest. It is going to be more supervisory.”

According to Bridgeport’s superintendent, the workload will fall on his team of seven or eight other educators.

Of course, “other educator” implies that Vallas is an educator, but he was actually the budget chief in Chicago before becoming their CEO of schools.  When it comes to superintendent Vallas we can be sure of one thing – and that is that he is not an educator.

Meanwhile, you’d be able to take a look at who those other educators are, except that when you go to his “company website,” it says “under construction.”  See:   http://70.32.115.193/.

Vallas did tell the CT Post that he’ll stick with Bridgeport at least until January 1, 2013.

Although the Post also reported that Bridgeport’s state-appointed school board is rushing to extend Vallas’ contract before the new democratically elected school board can take office.

Observers will recall that the Connecticut State Supreme Court ruled that the State of Connecticut acted illegally when it took over the Bridgeport Schools and replaced the elected members of Bridgeport’s Board of Education with people appointed by the Commissioner of Education. The Court mandated that a new school board election be held.

Worried that the new school board my choose a different path, the existing illegal school board is trying to sign multi-year contracts.

One might ask Governor Malloy and Education Commissioner Pryor why that are allowing a board that they have been told was  illegally appointed to not only continue to function, but openly strive to prevent the upcoming democratically elected board from having a proper rule in their own school system.  But, apparently no reporter has asked the Governor or Commissioner that question.

Good news though, the illegally appointed board chair did tell the CT Post that while Vallas’ contract does allow him to do outside consulting, that he is not compensated for any time that he is away from his job as Bridgeport’s superintendent.

I’d like to see the vouchers on that one…

In fact, if there is anyone out there who believes that, I’ve got a bridge to sell them.

You can find the CT Post story at: http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Vallas-1M-deal-won-t-affect-Bridgeport-work-3560753.php#ixzz1v4r3suRh

NEWS FLASH: “Education Reform is a Victory for the Children” (as Bridgeport’s Paul Vallas Nails $1 million “education reform” contract from Illinois)

The clarion call of the education reformers was “let’s not focus on benefiting the adults… it’s all about the children.”

So, with that in mind, it may come as a surprise that today’s Crain’s Chicago Business Journal is reporting that Bridgeport’s interim school superintendent, Paul Vallas, is headed to Illinois to collect a $1 million contract from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Who said “education reform” wasn’t good business.

And what pray tell will Paul Vallas be doing for $1 million?

Wait for it —- Vallas will be coordinating the state’s new intervention program in low-performing school districts.  Hey, that was our idea!

Vallas, known for leaving a trail of destruction behind him, has already done his magic in Chicago once before.  From there he went on to Philadelphia where he started the school closing frenzy that is now expected to shift 40 percent of all of Philadelphia’s public school students to charter schools.  Then he was on to New Orleans where he literally fired every public school teacher to make room for a major “charter school experiment” and from there to Haiti (destruction unknown) and now, most recently, to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Of course, news from Illinois is that another firm actually bid a lower price for that state contact, but things being what they are, Vallas ended up as the State Board of Education’s choice.  I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that the man who is presently the Chairman of the State Board of Education was previously Chairman of the Chicago Board of Education when Vallas was superintendent there in Chicago.

There is no word from Bridgeport how this development might impact his $229,000 a year salary revamping the Bridgeport school system, but Crain’s is reporting that the Bridgeport job “is a short-term gig.”

But hey, this guy is probably so efficient that he can work full-time fixing Bridgeport’s schools and the low-performing schools in Illinois without breaking a sweat.

Also, recall that despite the Malloy Administration’s illegal attempt to take over the Bridgeport school system, Bridgeport’s Mayor and Fairfield County corporate executives were able to push out the former superintendent and bring in Vallas.

One of the leaders of the coup was none other than Andrew Boas, a long-time board member of both Achievement First and ConnCAN.  Boas now serves as Chairman of Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy.

You know Achievement First, the charter school management company that was formed by Stefan Pryor and friends and where Pryor served as a Director for the eight years before resigning to become Malloy’s education commissioner and his point person on education reform.

Wait, What? readers will also remember that Achievement First, Inc. is one of the biggest financial beneficiaries of Malloy’s “Education Reform” bill.

By the way, Malloy signed the bill into law today.

But as the reformers say —- those who support Connecticut’s public schools are for the status quo and only care about the interests of adults whereas the “reformers” know that this entire battle is really for the benefit of the children… just ask Paul Vallas.

Now Wait Just A Minute; Are we for or against longer school days?

Hartford, Connecticut:  Monday Night, May 7, 2012:

Governor Dannel Malloy holds a 10pm press conference to declare victory on “education reform”.  As an example of his success, the Malloy Administration points out that as a result of the bill, Malloy’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, can now require the lowest performing school districts to offer preschool, summer school, extended school days or year.   (Although the bill makes no mention of how or where the money for these improvements would come from.)

Bridgeport, Connecticut:  Monday Night, May 7, 2012:

Meanwhile, just down the road, Bridgeport’s Interim Schools Superintendent, Paul Vallas, addresses the Bridgeport School Board about options to deal with the school budget deficit.  According to the Connecticut Post “one option the district is exploring is to shave three days off the school year and furlough the staff for those days.”  The paper also notes that “since district teachers and administrators have a 183-day school schedule built into their contracts, it is unclear how that would save the district money.”

When asked by a board member about that issue, Vallas apparently said that “he might balance the budget by ordering the three-day furlough, and then pay staff for those days in the new fiscal year that starts in July.

Ah, okay…

Just to understand the pattern, before arriving here to save Bridgeport’s schools, Vallas ran the school system in Chicago, served as CEO of Philadelphia’s Public Schools, “rebuilt” the New Orleans school system and then went off to fix the schools of Haiti.

In Philadelphia, Vallas claimed that he saved the school system by closing or privatizing at least 40 schools, while in New Orleans he fired every single teacher and closed more than 100 schools as part of his “citywide charter school experiment.”

As to his success in saving Philadelphia’s schools?

Last week it was announced that the Philadelphia school system will now be closing 40 more public schools next year and a total of at least 64 by 2017.  Their strategic plan is based on transferring 40% of the city’s current enrollment to charter schools.

 

Note:  For those of you who believe something like that can’t happen here, you may want to stop by the Teach For America regional summit on May 19th at the Bushnell Center in Hartford were the whole gang of reformers will be meeting including Governor Malloy, Bridgeport’s Paul Vallas, Windham Special Master Steven Adamowski, Achievement First’s Doug McCurry, the Executive Director of Excel Bridgeport and many more.

And the answer is: MORE Standardized Testing – Hooray!!

Okay, it’s bad enough the Governor Malloy’s “Education Reform” bill adds another whole standardized test in 11th grade but…

Not to be outdone, Paul Vallas and the corporate reformers who are “turning around” the Bridgeport School System sent out a memo yesterday informing all Bridgeport administrators and teachers that —- Another round of CMTs is just the thing to finish up the school year!

Sandra Kase, Vallas’ Chief Administrative Officer (and the person rumored to be in line to take over when Vallas blows out-of-town) issued the memo that reads;

“…there will be end-of-year testing in English Language Arts and mathematics that will mirror the CMT and CAPT examinations.  These tests will be administered to all students in Grades 3-11 during the week of June 4th,   including Grades 9 and 11 who do not take state assessments.”

And the rationale for this absurdity?

The new regime’s interpretation of how the world works is:

“Traditionally, instruction wanes after the administration of the state tests.  Unfortunately, this “lull” in teaching and learning deprives our students of much-needed academic support.”

In other words – let’s face facts – the only time teachers are capable of teaching (and children are capable of learning) is when they have a gun to their heads – and that gun is called the standardized tests.

Not only are standardized tests the vehicle to make teachers do their jobs (while making kids learn), it is standardized tests that Governor Malloy and his fellow “reformers” say MUST be used in the evaluation process so that government can determine whether teachers are or are not doing their job.

The memo highlights the directive by stating – in bold –  “ALL ELEMENTARY AND HIGH SCHOOLS ARE REQUIRED TO REFOCUS THE INSTRUCTIONAL DAY TO INCLUDE 90 MINUTES OF LITERACY/ELAINSTRUCTION AND 90 MINUTES OF MATHEMATICS INSTRUCTION EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY.

Hooray for Education Reform!

Oh, and for those who want to know who is driving the Bridgeport bus these days, the Chief Administrative Officer was kind enough to list the cc’s so we can see who is really in charge.  And they are; Paul Vallas, Superintendent, Theresa Carroll Deputy Chief Academic Officer, Lissette Colon, Chief of Staff, Marlene Siegel, Chief Financial Officer, Deborah Santacapita, Director, Data Management, Assessment & Accountabiity (which she spelled wrong – proving we all put our pants on one leg at a time), Dan Cochran , Executive Director, Human Resources, Don Kennedy, Chief Operations Officer and Shively Willingham, Special Assistant

With that many Chiefs and Directors the future of Bridgeport’s education system has got to be bright.

I would’ve sworn you used the word “transparency” – The Art of Moving Public Funds “Off-Line”

Oh, remember the good ole days when politicians just directed that public contracts go to friends, donors and certain companies.

That was then and this is now…and a whole new approach is taking shape.

This week we learned that Governor Malloy and his education commissioner, Stefan Pryor hired certain consultants to help develop Malloy’s “Education Reform” bill.  Rather than go through some silly competitive bidding process, they simply got a quasi-state agency, SERC to hire the two consultants; one for $195,000 and the other for $60,000.

The State Department of Education then reimburses SERC with funds from its budget and it’s all legal (maybe, sort of).

But that is nothing compared to what is quietly taking place in Bridgeport.

Bridgeport is taking it to a whole new level – an approach that saves time and energy by creating a system in which hundreds of millions in school funding can be moved “off- line.”

When Mayor Bill Finch and Fairfield County businessmen got tired of having to deal with elected members of the Bridgeport Board of Education last year, they convinced Governor Malloy to have the state take over the Bridgeport school system.

Alas, the state moved so quickly that it broke the law and the State Supreme Court was forced to step in to stop the takeover attempt and require that a new election be held to fill the vacancies on the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the Mayor and business community moved forward with its overall plans.  The superintendent of schools was fired and Paul Vallas, Jr., the famous and renowned “school reformer” was brought in to completely revamp Bridgeport’s system of public education.

Since the endeavor would cost money that the city of Bridgeport didn’t have, business leaders set up the Bridgeport Education Reform Fund and quickly raised about $400,000. Vallas’ $229,000 salary is being paid out of the Fund as are the various consultants Vallas says he needs to complete his task.  To date there has been no information about just who those consultants are or how much they are being paid.

In fact, since the Fund’s activities are confidential, there is no way to actually determine how much money has been raised, who donated the money or even how it is being spent.  The Connecticut Post, the Wall Street Journal and others have written that one of the lead “investors” in the effort is the ZOOM Foundation and the Lone Pine Foundation, both of which “belong” to hedge fund billionaire Steve Mandel.

For more on this issue, see the  March 26, 2011 Wait What post for details about the role Meghan Lowney, Zoom’s Executive Director, played when it came to lobbying state officials to take over the Bridgeport schools.  Although Lowney and others failed to register, as required under state law, the Ethics Commission can neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is under way.

But we are now learning that the Bridgeport Education Reform Fund was only the stalking horse for a much bigger and more impressive effort.

As Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Vallas rolled out his plans for a revamped Bridgeport education system, he included the creation of a “Good Schools Bridgeport Foundation” which will “support the school district by securing public and private funding that…and to use that funding to help the district expand high quality school options.”

Under Vallas’ plan (which was immediately endorsed by Bridgeport’s Mayor), the “Principal Functions and Responsibilities of the Foundation” would be:

  • To monitor academic, financial and operational performance of Bridgeport schools.
  • To identify high quality Bridgeport schools for future duplication and franchising.
  • To implement programs to improve existing schools and to expand school choice options by supporting open enrollment, accelerated and exemplary programs in qualified schools.
  • To create a system for identifying, recruiting, incubating and certifying proven high quality providers to open new schools or to assume management of failing schools.
  • To create a process by which the community can provide input into the selection of school providers to open new schools or to take over failing schools.
  • To serve as a pipeline for recruiting and training high quality administrators, principals and teachers for Bridgeport Public Schools.

And, of course, the Foundation would hold the purse strings to ensure that its vision of appropriate developments take place.

To further insulate the Foundation from meddling by elected school boards or, for that matter, democracy, his plan also provides that the Bridgeport Regional Business Council will “monitor the school district finances” and a new entity that will be called the Bridgeport Academic Accountability Council and consist of “nationally renowned researchers” will be put in place to evaluate and guide the school district’s performance and programs.

In this way, Bridgeport’s parents, teachers and taxpayers would not need to worry themselves about how school funds are being spent.

The Mayor has announced that he hopes to raise at least $50 million in private funds for the program or, in his words, “I’m going to raise millions of dollars…A lot of wealthy people in Fairfield County, they drive by Bridgeport all the time, and I know they can help, and we welcome their support.”

And Paul Timpanelli, the President of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, the organization responsible for monitoring the Bridgeport School’s finances called the plan terrific saying “It’s comprehensive, aggressive. I’ve seen a lot of the details and I’m very pleased…I don’t know what’s not to like.”

And should anyone doubt their intentions, the Wall Street Journal wrote last week that “Mr. Vallas argues that if he can show early successes, the push for better schools from parents, the mayor and the governor will sustain the momentum no matter who is on the new school board. But he isn’t counting on that. Under his deal with the current school board, he is to help pick his successor. And, according to both Mr. Vallas and the mayor, new money for schools—not only private funds but, in a twist, also new city tax money—will be funneled through a non-profit, Good Schools Bridgeport, to try to keep the new school board from deviating from the Vallas path.”

Although it would certainly engender law suits, there is even talk of moving the money the city of Bridgeport receives from the State (i.e. the ECS Funds) into this new Foundation, thereby, bypassing the need to follow all those pesky “transparency” rules like having to use competitive bidding or limiting the use of consultants.

Of course, Wait, What? readers will recognize that Governor Malloy’s “Education Reform” plan already includes a generous program to move money “off-line.”

Under Malloy’s proposed “Commissioner’s Network” system, the commissioner of education will take over 25 failing schools, fire the staff, ban collective bargaining, turn the schools over to a third party and that entity will then be legally exempt from the state’s laws requiring competitive bidding and the law limiting the use of outside consultants.

Taxpayer funds going to private entities to spend as they deem appropriate.

On the other hand, if they can pull off what they are attempting to do in Bridgeport, governors and others won’t have to go through that awkward process of having to order quasi-state agencies to retain certain consultants or the “lengthy process” of getting the legislature to change the laws.  Under Bridgeport’s new approach the money – public and private – would go to a private foundation.  Then, since the consultants would already have control of the funds, they could decide among themselves how they wanted to divvy up the taxpayer’s money.

Between Malloy’s “Education Reform” plan and Bridgeport’s new effort, the notion of “transparency” is on the way t0 becoming a word of the past.

And lest Connecticut residents think these efforts are confined to Bridgeport, rest assured that if Malloy, Pryor, Vallas and the Michelle Rhee’s of the world can get away with these activities in Bridgeport; New Britain, Hartford and New London, other fiscally and academically distressed school districts won’t be far behind.  There is a reason the corporate elite and outside groups are spending so much money to get Malloy’s bill passed and Bridgeport’s new Foundation set up.  When all is said and done, we aren’t talking about tens of millions of public dollars; we are literally looking at hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at risk.