Paul Vallas has a lot in common with Bruce Rauner

Written By Dan Mihalopoulos Posted: 06/19/2014, 04:16am

In a plea to mend a crucial relationship that’s strained, Gov. Pat Quinn recently told unionized teachers they should hold his record up against nothing more than the views of Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.

“Please don’t compare me to the Almighty,” Quinn quipped, trying to put behind bitter feuding over pensions and classroom funding, at least until the fall election.

Indeed, from the perspective of teachers and other public employees, the Democratic governor could rank far below God and still be vastly preferable to Rauner.

Yet, when it comes to some of the most important issues in education today, Quinn’s running mate in the November election — the former Chicago Public Schools chief executive Paul Vallas — appears to have plenty in common with Rauner.

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Put aside for a moment whether you agree with self-styled education reformers such as Rauner and their ideas —  chief among them the rapid expansion of privately run, publicly funded charter schools.

Effective or not, what Vallas did during the many years between leaving CPS and returning home to run for Illinois lieutenant governor seems very much in line with what Rauner says he would love to see more of here.

Vallas worked in New Orleans for a large chunk of the time he was in self-imposed exile from Illinois. That city’s struggles with public schools are documented vividly in “Hope Against Hope,” education journalist Sarah Carr’s 2013 book.

Carr details efforts by Vallas that the vast majority of unionized teachers here or anywhere would oppose strongly.

After leading “one of the country’s largest experiments with school privatization” in Philadelphia, she writes, Vallas arrived in New Orleans in 2007 to become the head of the state-run Recovery School District.

“Vallas brought the mind-set of a frenetic businessman to the New Orleans superintendency,” Carr says. “He hired all manner of consultants, many of whom he knew from his years in Chicago and Philadelphia, often paying them $2,000 a day for their services.”

In New Orleans, Vallas clearly “hoped to turn nearly all of the schools into charters as quickly as possible,” and the city “became a destination for young, aspiring and ambitious charter schools leaders from across the country who were far less likely to hire veteran teachers.”

He also was a boon to a controversial program Rauner has lauded called Teach For America. It’s a national corps of college graduates and other professionals who agree to try teaching in public schools for a couple of years.

“Vallas helped triple the number of Teach For America recruits working in the New Orleans region between 2007 and 2010,” according to Carr.

That did not go over well “since thousands of veteran educators had lost their jobs in [Hurricane] Katrina’s wake and now watched as the Recovery School District aggressively wooed young college graduates with little teaching experience, even promising relocation bonuses at one point.”

Black teachers had made up 73 percent of the workforce in New Orleans, even after the hurricane.

“Starting in 2007, the percentage of black teachers began to drop steadily each year, to 63 percent during the 2007-2008 school year, and 57 percent the next year,” Carr wrote. “Between those two school years the number of black teachers in the public schools fell by about 100 while the number of white teachers rose by a similar number.”

Vallas did not flinch from the criticism. He told the Times-Picayune newspaper in 2009 that “experience can be overrated” when it comes to teaching.

And there’s little doubt Vallas would have a different take on his time in New Orleans than Carr’s excellent book provides. Especially now that he’s running for statewide office as a Democrat again, for the first time since his narrow loss to Rod Blagojevich in the 2002 primary for governor.

But a spokeswoman for the Quinn-Vallas campaign declined repeated requests for an interview about his time in New Orleans, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

That’s too bad. Teachers at least should demand to know why Quinn, who claims to be so different from Rauner, would chose a running mate with a track record featuring so much that Rauner heartily embraces.


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