How an independent political party helped run former Philly schools chief out of CT—and how their tactics could change politics here

Working_Families_Party_logo.svgNo one expects you to know where Bridgeport, CT. necessarily is on a map, but those of us interested in independent politics may want to learn all we can about New England’s 5th-largest city which used to house P.T. Barnum.

What happened there on Election Day last week may have a lasting effect on the country, and has completely changed the game for the former CEO of the Philadelphia School District.

On Nov. 5th, in addition to chalking Bill De Blasio’s campaign for New York City mayor up as a win, a small 1998-conceived political group known as the Working Families Party helped send school reformer Paul Vallas out of Bridgeport, and, likely, his school “reform” philosophy with him.

Paul Vallas served as the Philadelphia Schools chief from 2002 until 2007 and is credited—or whatever you want to call it—for privatizing 40 schools and raising test scores, before the district found a $73 million deficit in 2006. He’s since (and before) run numerous school districts across the country (New Orleans, Chicago, Bridgeport) in the charter style of education reformer Michelle Rhee, and was aided in his efforts by current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But Vallas’ most recent effort in Connecticut was derailed by an effort created in part by that town’s chapter of the Working Families. The party—described by the New York Post as a “laser-focused, hard-left-leaning coalition of militant private-sector unions, grasping public-sector unions and advantage-seeking hangers-on now masquerading as a “progressive” mainstream political party”—is picking up where classic third parties have fallen short, quickly becoming known as an alternative to politics-as-usual in big city machine politics.

Their work in Bridgeport largely began about four years ago, committed to taking the town’s school board. This made sense because the largely Democratic Bridgeport board leaves one-third of its nine school board seats open for a minority party.

And there was a lot to fight against. Vallas had set an agenda that’s largely become distrusted amongst public school advocates. He focused on creating a “teach to text” culture; he signed more than $12 million in no-bid contracts according to NBC Chicago; he cut $14 million from the district’s budget; and, according to the Connecticut Mirror, parents and teachers were often shut out of the decision making process. All the while, he fought a court decision which stated he did not meet that state’s legal requirements to actually serve as superintendent.

Much of his reforms have become typical of school privatizers, often embraced by both Democrats and Republicans.

And while Philly’s situation is different (we don’t have a school board, for starters), our city council gives minority parties a portion of the at-Large seats (two of the seven). Here, they have typically gone Republican over the last few decades; and until recently, it was the same in Connecticut.

In 2009, the Working Families Party took the three minority seats. Vallas’ move into the town in January 2012, then, sort of helped the town’s revolt move into another phase. During last week’s election, candidates aligned with the Working Families party actually took a majority of the board, which meant five members are now critical of Vallas’ reform approach, four are in favor.

Vallas is now stepping down as the superintendent to run for Lt. Governor of Illinois.

With that in mind, we hear there’s a possibility they set up shop in Philadelphia to compete for those at-Large seats. And whether or not that happens, the Bridgeport case is a study in how third party politics can—and should—work.

Bridgeport is now largely looked at—in labor and activist circles, at least—as a successful end to the attempt to reform. And they did it largely because of third-party efforts defeating the status quo. We could probably learn a thing or two from them.

Follow @RandyLoBasso on Twitter

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