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VALLAS FACTS: Philadelphia schools 'bankrupt'? Only because austerity politics of the ruling class dictate that lies and the policies of 'standards and accountability' have been an expensive failure

The latest problem in the strange career of Paul Vallas came to public attention with the June 28 decision of the Connecticut court that Vallas does not have legal certification to be a school administrator in Connecticut. Vallas has tried to ignore the court. During public discussion of the court ruling, Vallas told reporters, among other things, that he was like Michael Jordan, a superstar. Vallas claimed that Connecticut would not have demanded that Michael Jordan get certified to coach basketball in Connecticut. So, too, Vallas should not be required to follow Connecticut school laws, Vallas told the world. Vallas was described by some of the school board members in Bridgeport, which had hired him, as a "rock star." The phrase has been used by other school districts that have been hiring former Chicago administrators during the past year.

Paul Vallas in a recent photo from Connecticut. Connecticut Post photo.After being "Chief Executive Officer" of Chicago's public schools from July 1995 through June 2001, Vallas was out as Chicago schools chief, for reasons that are still being examined as history. For less than a year, Vallas tried, and failed, to build an Illinois political career, running for governor during the Democratic Party primary in 2002. He lost.

Vallas was hired after losing the Illinois primary by Philadelphia, on orders from the governor, a Republican. The "school reform" study that Vallas would base his work on had been written for Philadelphia by Edison Schools, Inc. and called for massive charterization and other privatizations, which Vallas gladly continued.

During the years Vallas was head of Philadelphia schools, charters proliferated and privatization was policy. By 2013, Philadelphia, like Chicago and other districts that Vallas has administered, is facing serious financial problems -- this year, "bankruptcy."

Vallas' procedures in school districts have always been the same: massive privatization, attacks on real public schools and teachers, "reconstitution" ... All have been part of the Vallas method since he began as CEO of Chicago's schools in 1995. By 1996 Vallas had "reconstituted" the first of public schools that faced, over time, what became known as "turnaround". By law, when the Chicago Board of Education votes on "turnaround" of schools, it is legally instituting another "reconstitution". There is no such thing as "turnaround" under Illinois law (although the corporate term has remained since Vallas was nicknamed "Chainsaw Paul" by Forbes in 1998).

The most recent Chicago votes for "reconstitution" came on May 22, 2013. But the reconstitutions began with Vallas in 1996. Vallas's career continued across urban districts. After Vallas was removed from the Philadelphia job amid investigations into cronyism, he was hired by New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had broken the most powerful largely African American union in Louisiana, the United Teachers of New Orleans, an AFT affiliate. Most of the public schools in New Orleans were turned into charter schools, with the remaining schools, the "recovery district," under Vallas.

Were the schools in Chicago that had been subjected to the expensive reconstitution process improved? As early as the first years of Vallas' work in Chicago, each time a school is "reconstituted", the Chicago Board of Education pays more than $1 million. The "turnaround specialists" hired by the school district eliminate all the staff of the school (including the lunchroom workers, and usually the principal). As reconstitution has continued in Chicago, Chicago's Boards of Education have routinely passed reconstitution without ever providing the public with a full accounting of how much the expensive policy, begun in Chicago by Vallas (and currently supported by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), cost Chicago and other districts where it has been tried, and failed.

Since 1996, when the process began, Englewood High School, one of the first turnaround schools, has been shuffled around a half dozen times. "Reconstitution" did not improve the education of the students in Englewood, which still faces some of the greatest challenges in the USA. But Paul Vallas, with the help of the national media, claimed that such a process -- "accountability" by test based "standards" -- was supposed to make improvements.

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The Philadelphia School District is in major chaos.

It is one of the largest districts in the country, and is also one of the most bankrupt. Currently, it is facing a $304 million deficit and 20 percent of the total staff has been laid off. That's about 3,800 employees and includes assistant principals, secretaries, and teachers.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called the situation an "educational crisis." He intervened last week after advocates, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, launched a campaign to get the highest education official in the United States involved in the situation that affects about 204,000 traditional and charter school students in the district.

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"There's no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century," Duncan said in a statement last Wednesday. "Philadelphia's children didn't create these problems or ask for them."

The Philadelphia district has been in trouble for 10 years. But such dire financial straits could occur in any U.S. school district as the influence of charter schools mixed with funding cuts for traditional public schools combine for a perfect storm of financial distress.

Jerusha O. Conner, an education professor at Villanova University and an expert on the Philadelphia school district, told TakePart that the state shoulders much of the blame for the city's problems.

"Pennsylvania ranks 8th lowest in the country, spending only 35.8 percent on education, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau," she said.

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And for the first time in decades, the amount the nation's schools spent per student fell in 2011 -- a possible sign of more education cuts to come for schools across the country.

Conner said that, according to the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, "were it not for the deliberate underinvestment and disinvestment in Philadelphia schools by the state, and the misguided investment in an oversized and exceptionally costly charter school sector -- the district could easily be enjoying a multibillion-dollar surplus instead of a deficit."

Some education watchers blame Republican Governor Tom Corbett and have said that he should have allocated more money for Philadelphia in his budget. Currently, a state rescue package of $141 million is awaiting Corbett's signature. But that is not nearly enough to pull the district from its troubled waters.

Conner also points out that what is happening in Philadelphia has already occurred in Chicago.

"It is no coincidence that the Philadelphia School District is facing a plight similar to that of the Chicago public schools, with mass school closings, teacher layoffs, and budget shortfalls," she said.

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Perhaps, that's because Philadelphia's superintendent, Paul Vallas, was in Chicago prior to Philadelphia. In Chicago, he enacted similar reforms as those in Philadelphia.

"In Philadelphia, he was known for what is variously called the 'contracting regime' and the 'diverse provider model,' as he ushered in an era of private companies contracting to run various school services as well as schools," Conner said.

The privatization of public education is an increasingly problematic issue for school districts.

In fact, Corbett told local reporters last week that he had "sought advice" on the $141 million package from "businesspeople" notably Pennsylvania's Republican national committeeman Robert Asher, Comcast Corp. executive vice president David Cohen, and Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Rob Wonderling.

While Corbett waits to sign the rescue package, Duncan has ordered the Department of Education staff "to provide any needed technical assistance to both the district and the commonwealth."

He said, "The bottom line is that doing what's right for Philadelphia students will not only benefit the city -- but the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the country."

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