Paul Vallas made his mark in education-reform circles as school superintendent in the big cities of Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, post-Katrina. Now the superstar superintendent is trying to turn around the schools in much smaller Bridgeport, Conn.–in 150 days or so.
This is more than a curiosity: America’s economic future depends on fixing its public schools. And, as Mr. Vallas observes, “There are a lot of Bridgeports”–small, de-industrialized, cash-short cities with failing schools.
If he succeeds here–within “existing financial constraints,” as he puts it, and with strong unions–Bridgeport can inspire others. “There are models for school improvement that don’t cost $1 million a school,” Mr. Vallas argues, a not-so-subtle swipe at the cost of experiments elsewhere.
The saga of schools in Bridgeport (pop. 144,229), a poor city amid the wealth of Fairfield County, is too long for this space. The short version: For nearly a decade, the state has flunked the 20,250-student, 37-school system. Only 10% of tenth graders meet state math and reading standards. At the best-performing of the city’s three high schools, the dropout rate is 23%; at the worst, 45%.
For years, members of the elected school board were at odds both with each other and with the city. The city hasn’t increased school funding for four years.In July, with quiet backing from the mayor, governor and wealthy education-reform enthusiasts, the school board took the extraordinary step of voting itself out of existence and asked the state to take over. A new state-appointed board fired the superintendent and, in December, signed Mr. Vallas to a one-year contract, raising money from private donors whose identities weren’t disclosed to pay his $229,000 salary and settle with his predecessor. But in February, the state Supreme Court declared the takeover illegal, and ordered a special election for a new school board. The date has yet to be set.
Bridgeport’s 2010-2011 budget spent $215,843,895 for “more than” 21,000 students = about $10,278/student. Madison spent $14,858.40/student during the 2011-2012 budget cycle.