“He Sold Our Schools off to the Highest Bidder”
A look inside Paul Vallas’ history of harming public education and a sampling of the shock doctrine politics, anti-union postures, neoliberal policies and budgetary schemes he brought to school districts around the country—and world—and the havoc they helped create.
David I. Backer and Jason Wozniak
Shakeda Gaines, former president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, remembers when Paul Vallas began his term as superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia in 2002. Vallas “brought in his corporate vultures and his spreadsheets and tried to sell us a bill of goods,” Gaines says.
Vallas, known for his contempt of teachers unions and his ability to capitalize on disasters to upend public school systems, has gone into Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Haiti, Chile, and Bridgeport, Conn., to hawk himself as a pragmatic problem solver, someone who will turn around distressed schools.
Despite this brand, instead of fixing disasters, Vallas often has a hand in creating them. And we argue that he hasn’t turned around the districts he’s led and consulted; he’s turned privatization and other misguided corporate practices loose upon them.
Looking back on his record of leadership, we’ve come to the conclusion that Vallas’ business-model approach to school districts has produced financial failures and created chaos for school employees, students and community members. The policies Vallas has implemented, along with his governing style, have at times mimicked the tendencies he once praised about Chile. It also appears that Vallas often puts corporate interests ahead of the people he’s supposed to serve.
As Gaines tells us: “He sold our schools off to the highest bidder.”
The way Vallas’ leadership pattern can play out is with massive layoffs through reconstituting schools and setting the grounds for school closures and sometimes helping usher in the transformation from traditional, public, social democratic structures into neoliberal amalgamations of private operators (while using public money).
How should one characterize the complete destruction of the New Orleans public school system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the economic malfeasance that contributes to fiscal losses and the closure of some two dozen public schools in Philadelphia, and policy mistakes that planted the seeds for the largest set of public school closings in the nation’s history in Chicago?
When we reached out to Vallas to comment about many of the claims in this article, a spokesperson responded by email writing that “Paul is proud of his record of turning around failing school districts and improving outcomes for students and the community, and any other characterization is absolutely false.” The spokesperson noted that Vallas “left the Chicago Public Schools with six straight years of improved academic performance, 12 bond rating upgrades, almost $1 billion in cash balances, a fully funded teacher retirement system and no teacher strikes,” and that Vallas “achieved similarly positive results in each of the other major school districts he ran.”
But several recently published articles and our own research question Vallas’ track record.
Consider Jim Daley’s “Paul Vallas’s trail of school privatization” that ran in The TRiiBE, “How Vallas Helped Wall Street Loot Chicago’s Schools” by Matthew Cunningham-Cook in The Lever, or Mercedes K. Schneider’s cautionary article “Why a Veteran Education Reform Writer Thinks Chicagoans Should Be Worried About Paul Vallas” that was also recently published in In These Times.
Per Daley: “The election is a flashpoint not just in the struggle for the direction [Chicago Public Schools] will take, but also in the battle for the future of public schools nationwide: whether it will be one of school choice — which broadly includes expanding open enrollment programs, vouchers and charter schools — or reinvestment in traditional neighborhood schools staffed by unionized teachers. The battle is one that Vallas has often found himself at the center of in the cities where he has been a school district administrator.”
Clyde Nicholson, an activist from Bridgeport, Conn. — where Vallas was superintendent for two years, until a judge ruled he was not properly certified for the job—said recently that “this guy will not listen to anything you have to say and he runs things like he’s a dictator.”
It might sound outlandish, except we’ve heard and read similar things from so many different people.
In Schneider’s article for In These Times, she cites a 2008 New York Times article where Vallas talks about how much he likes the power he has in New Orleans with no “institutional obstacles” like a school board or collective bargaining agreement.
“No one tells me how long my school day should be or my school year should be,” he said. “Nobody tells me who to hire or who not to hire. I can hire the most talented people. I can promote people based on merit and based on performance. I can dismiss people if they’re chronically nonattending or if they’re simply not performing.”
Indeed, Vallas has first-hand experience with shock doctrine politics and has uplifted the policies of an actual authoritarian regime.
Playing the role of disaster-capitalist consultant, Vallas advised post-earthquake Haiti in 2010 to implement free-market education reform efforts, similar to those imposed during the period of dictatorship in Chile and in post-Katrina New Orleans. He proposed a plan for former Haitian President Michel Martelly’s government to tax all citizens’ international phone calls and wire transfers, funneling the money to provide tuition vouchers for privatized schools.
Seattle-based organizer and teacher Jesse Hagopian, who is also a Rethinking Schools board member, was in Haiti after the earthquake and has called Vallas’ approach “shock doctrine schooling.” He writes: “When the shock doctrine is applied to schooling, it has the effect of both profiteering off children and denying them access to the knowledge that could help them escape subjugation.”
Vallas has studied shock doctrine politics and even co-authored a report titled, “Education in the Wake of Natural Disaster.” There, Vallas and his colleagues expressed approval of “Chile’s sweeping market oriented educational reforms in the 1980s, including school management decentralization and a nationwide ‘scholarship’ (voucher) program.”
It’s important to remember that, from 1973 – 1990, Chile was under the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who led a violent coup against the democratically elected Salvador Allende. Pinochet ruled with an iron fist. In the name of “law and order,” he executed and disappeared thousands of Chileans. Pinochet received significant backing from the United States, and his market-based reforms were shaped by the prominent neoliberal economists known as the “Chicago Boys.” Under Pinochet, Chile became a testing ground for neoliberal dystopian policy.
In 2011, Vallas’ consulting group was paid $500,000 from the government of Chilean billionaire and right-wing President Sebastián Piñera with an aim to overhaul supposedly low-performing schools, just as the country was digging itself out from a massive earthquake that left hundreds dead and caused substantial damage to infrastructure across the country.
Vallas’ firm’s work occurred around roughly the same time period as high school and college students in Chile — who had suffered through the educational system created by Pinochet — were leading large post-dictatorship protests. Judging by Vallas’ continued insistence on promoting market-based education reforms, even these massive student-led protests didn’t shake his fondness for totalitarian education reforms.
These neoliberal, market-based, shock doctrine policies, which followed Pinochet and post-earthquake Chile and Haiti, have a pattern: They come with a fancy-sounding financial pedigree, but the books are cooked.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley put Vallas in charge of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in 1995, and it might look like Vallas tried to reduce the CPS deficit. But there are financial red flags from his time in office, such as the some $2 billion crisis resulting from his reorganization of pension payments, as both this analysis and this analysis point out.
Something similar happened when Vallas was in Philadelphia, as researcher Camika Royal, a former Philadelphia public schools student, explains in a chapter on Vallas from her new book, Not Paved for Us: “Vallas’s leadership merged with the federal government’s market ideology to enact racial capitalism” such that “unaccountable private businesses made millions off the alleged failure” of the schools. “Vallas’s corporate solutions deepened and widened the financial problems they were sent to ameliorate.”
What Royal describes is the same approach others have noted regarding Vallas’ time in Chicago and elsewhere, but Vallas’ time in Philadelphia shows the financial bungling more clearly.
As financial researcher Tom Sgouros explains in his 2015 essay, “Predatory Public Finance”: “From 2002 until 2007, [Philadelphia] executed a series of ‘interest-rate swap’ agreements with Wall Street banks, including Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs, to transform their floating-rate debt into fixed-rate debt.”
According to a Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center analysis, these decisions cost taxpayers $331 million in losses.
As former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter once remarked, Vallas never “saw a dollar that he wasn’t willing to spend three times with three different people.” A saying which might explain why such interests are lining up to support Vallas for mayor.
Retired Philadelphia high school teacher Lisa Haver told the Chicago Sun-Times that under Vallas, the district used standardized tests punitively which was “really harmful to children” and made them contemplate whether bad scores would mean closing their school or a charter taking over.
“The wolf is always at the door,” Haver said.
“The whole corporate reform that was going across the country was, ‘Schools are a business, we have to treat them like a business,’” said Haver. “And we’re still trying to recover from that.”
According to the Chicago Sun-Times article, “Vallas was advertised as a financial expert who could turn around a financially struggling Philly district. But, while he says he balanced the budget, news reports and audits say he left the school district in financial disarray and with a $73 million deficit. Like Daley before them, Philadelphia leaders were disenchanted by Vallas at the end.”
“I go in, fix the system, I move on to something else,” Vallas once proclaimed. But far from fixing things, we’ve found that his policies destabilize communities, which creates opportunities for private interests to capitalize on losses suffered by the poor and working class. Conveniently, people with privilege, like Vallas, can “move on to something else” after creating a mess.
New Orleans parent Ashana Bigard, who dealt with Vallas’ leadership in the city, notes that “people do grow and change, but … if you’re known for lying and cheating and creating harmful conditions for the least of us, for small children, then that’s probably who you are.”
Wherever Vallas has overseen schools, his business-model approach to educational challenges has often led to increases in structural violence committed against (particularly Black and brown) children, teachers and communities. “It [Vallas’ tenure] was a war on working-class parents,” says Rousemary Vega, a parent-organizer in Chicago Public Schools during Vallas’ time as superintendent. “As a parent, it felt like I was being erased.”
Based on all of our reading, research and experiences, we believe we recognize somewhat of a pattern in Vallas’ education leadership that goes something like this: Prioritize relationships with private entities (rather than people) that results in hollowing out schools. Then, evaluate those schools (which have been under-supported) using the metric of unfair standardized testing. Now, you can close the schools. Finally, open anti-union charter schools instead — while using public funds as much as possible — and be held accountable to the public as little as possible. Rinse, repeat.
Political consultant Delmarie Cobb rightly points out, for example, that Vallas’ leadership in Chicago Public Schools is synonymous with the biggest mass school closure in U.S. history. “There’s a straight line that you can draw from Vallas’ time [to former Chicago Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] closing 50 schools … and straight through kids committing crime and the violence that we have out here,” Cobb explains, “because there are people who never went back to school after the closings.” Indeed, hundreds of teachers at seven Black-majority schools lost their jobs in these closures, forcing students to go elsewhere — or to leave school and never come back.
The number of people dropping out of Chicago schools increased by orders of magnitude in the wake of Vallas’ policies. After implementing a high-stakes accountability system based on test scores (which violated even the testing company’s own policies around proper usage), schools held back students of color, causing the large increases. According to findings from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, led by Dr. Elaine Allensworth:
For students retained in grade 8, dropout rates “were 13 percentage points higher than among similar non-retained students — 57 percent, compared to 44 percent, which is a 29 percent increase in the likelihood of dropping out.” For students already over age at grade 8 (having been retained at least once before) who were retained again in grade 8, the dropout rate escalated to 78 percent: only one in five graduated.
After all the closures and dropouts in Chicago, one would think Vallas might have learned about the consequences of his actions.
Meanwhile, as Vallas parades himself as a thoughtful reformer, he has gone on the record about critical race theory in Wirepoints with comments that sound more like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, calling it a “divisive” curriculum that hurts white children. And when Vallas has held leadership positions, his approach has leaned conservative. While his policies were (and sometimes still are) popular in corporate Democrat circles, it makes more sense in today’s context to align Vallas with the Republican project to destroy public education by replacing it with private systems (often under the guise of choice).
As Reverend Lindsey Joyce, who serves a church on the North Side of Chicago, wrote in a now-viral tweet:
There are no more public schools in New Orleans. I don’t know how else to help folks understand Paul Vallas’s horrific record. There. Are. No. more. Public. Schools. In. New. Orleans. Because of Paul Vallas.
Vallas himself tells the exact policy details behind his New Orleans decisions, which he led with neoliberals in state and federal government in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There had been a few schools in a recovery zone before the storm, which facilitated the turning over of public schools to charter operators; as he came into leadership, Vallas’ oversaw moving the entire district into a recovery zone.
As economist Douglas N. Harris explains in his new book, Charter School City, after this transformation, “The teacher union contract, tenure, and certification rules were eliminated, giving schools autonomy and control to hire and fire as they pleased.”
Indeed, repeating a draconian “reconstitution” tactic from Chicago (which led to hundreds of veteran teachers losing their jobs), all 7,500 teachers in New Orleans were fired under this policy. The teachers were then asked to reapply for their jobs, a majority of whom — as educational researchers Adrienne Dixson, Kristen L. Buras, and Elizabeth S. Jeffers confirm — “were Black teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals, [and it] had a devastating effect on the racial balance of not only the education community in New Orleans but also the Black middle class.”
The authors cite veteran principal Regina Grier (this is a pseudonym) to illuminate the situation, who reflects that the experience of being under Vallas was “like Thanksgiving. These white folks show up and they’re gonna … they want what you have. Your land property. Your culture. And they will wipe your history out, you know, to get it. But it’s not because they hate you. It’s because you really don’t have any value.”
While the book Charter School City bills itself as a triumphalist account of success, its actual arguments are the opposite. The changes in New Orleans were done, as a reviewer at Harvard Educational Review finds, “with little regard for the preferences of the local community” and had many “unintended consequences.”
The book’s final paragraph is a warning for all those championing Vallas’ record in New Orleans, with Harris hoping “other cities and states will build on the New Orleans experience with a desire to copy not its design and process but its ambition and inventiveness.” Even this supposed cheerleader for the charter-led city doesn’t recommend the “design and process” of Vallas’ leadership.
Philadelphia school advocate Shakeda Gaines echoes what we found. She says that, even though Vallas bills himself as a brass-tacks money manager, “even with all of his spreadsheets and consultants, it was clear he was the one who couldn’t do basic math.”
When you look at the numbers and the lived reality for teachers, students, families and administrators in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, it’s easy to see Vallas left a path of mismanagement and chaos for many.
Gaines insists that “no community member should ever have to accept” that.
As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.
David I. Backer (@schooldaves) is an associate professor of education policy at West Chester University. His research focuses on ideology and school finance, and he writes a weekly newsletter called Schooling in Socialist America.
Jason Wozniak is an assistant professor in the Educational Foundations and Policy Studies Department at West Chester University, and is a member of the Debt Collective. Jason taught in Chicago Public Schools from 2000-2004.