Vallas certification debacle reveals shortcomings of education reform efforts

Only in the twilight zone or a Kafka novel would the law preclude someone who served successfully as public schools superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans from running the Bridgeport public schools, one of the worst performing school districts in the nation. 

Yet as is so often the case with Connecticut government, what would seem crazy anywhere else is business as usual: last week a state Superior Court held that Bridgeport Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas was ineligible to continue serving in the position because he failed to meet the superintendent certification requirements of state law.  State certification law mandates that most superintendents brought in from outside Connecticut complete a “school leadership program” at a Connecticut institution of higher education.  The Superior Court held that the custom-designed UConn “independent study” Vallas took was a “sham” that failed to meet the statute’s requirements.

 Vallas, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor argue that the course was not a sham and say they will appeal the ruling.  But whether or not this appeal succeeds, it misses the real point: it is absurd that the law requires someone with Paul Vallas’s qualifications -– including overseeing school districts ten times the size of Bridgeport’s – to complete courses in “school leadership” in the first place.

The truth is that Connecticut superintendent certification laws have nothing to do with administrators’ qualifications and everything to do with insulating status quo bureaucracies from outside reform.  When national leaders in education reform like Vallas have to jump through pointless and time-consuming bureaucratic hoops to obtain leadership roles in Connecticut, they are likely to simply give up and move elsewhere. 

The same is true of Connecticut’s teacher certification requirements, among the most stringent in the country.  With a few exceptions, Connecticut law requires teachers to have a degree in education, meaning many talented people who didn’t decide to become teachers until after completing their educations have difficulty doing so.    

 This serves the economic interests of existing teachers and administrators by limiting competition for their jobs, but does not advance the goal of obtaining the highest quality teaching and administration possible.  As the Connecticut Policy Institute has discussed in our papers on education reform, there is no evidence linking certification regimes to teachers’ or administrators’ effectiveness in increasing student achievement.  They simply serve to limit the recruitment pipeline of outstanding educators and keep the antiquated education administration departments of the state university system in business.

Structural mechanisms in Connecticut law insulating entrenched educational bureaucracies are not limited to certification. For instance, the state’s school funding structure does nothing to incentivize performance or hold failing administrators accountable.  On the contrary, because Connecticut does not have a “money-follows-the-child” school funding structure, districts that have the most students leaving underperforming schools to attend charter or magnet schools are rewarded with higher per-student budgets than they otherwise would have.  Meanwhile, certain high-performing charter schools like Amistad Academy in New Haven are forced to indefinitely leave thousands of low-income minority students on wait-lists because the schools can’t access funding to expand their operations.

Governor Malloy’s 2012 education reforms were enacted with much bombast and self-congratulations.  But they did little to address these core structural problems with public education in Connecticut, all of which continue to impede low-income students’ access to high quality educational opportunities.  In fact, the “school leadership program” certification requirement for out-of-state superintendents was added to Connecticut state law in the 2012 education reform bill.

Commissioner Pryor and Governor Malloy are understandably frustrated that this requirement is now being used to impede reform efforts in Bridgeport.  But they have no one to blame but themselves. With an education reform effort heavier on substance and lighter on rhetoric, they wouldn’t have found themselves in this predicament to begin with.

 

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