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by Bruce Dixon
There are many things upon which elite corporate Democrats are in complete agreement with elite corporate Republicans. Often enough they are far more important to the way we live our lives than the cultural rhetoric and stylistic fluff that separates the two parties. Both Republicans and Democrats agree on empire and the wars needed to preserve it. They both agree gentrification, stadiums, and tax breaks for the wealthy are the only way to economically develop cities. They both know that poor and working people ought to subsidize a new round of predatory accumulation with lowered wages, plundered pensions, fiscal austerity and the privatization of public education.
Democrat Paul Vallas has spent the last two decades dismembering and dismantling public schools, lying about deficits, unjustly blaming and firing public school teachers across the country. In 1995 Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, began the reversal of the bottom-up school reform of his predecessor Harold Washington, by assuming direct mayoral control over the city's public schools. Chicago fired its school superintendent, a professional educator, and sent in the mayor's chief of staff, an accountant unqualified to teach half an hour in any classroom to run the nation's third largest school system “more like a business” with the business title of “CEO. That man was Paul Vallas.
If neoliberalism is the economic and social doctrine that all human interactions ought to be disciplined and mediated by the market, then Paul Vallas is the neoliberal chainsaw man on public education. He eagerly set about undermining bottom-up reforms in Chicago that empowered neighborhood councils of parents and rank and file teachers. A 1988 law had given these local school councils veto power over principals' contracts and title one funds in each and every one of Chicago's public schools.
Paul Vallas hit upon the expedient of disbanding and dissolving whole schools and reconstituting them as private entities, charter schools. He closed one south side Chicago high school across the street from an old National Guard armory, and gave public funding to a military academy in the armory building. With no nearby public school to attend, many parents and children felt compelled to enroll in the new military charter school. Paul Vallas terminated dozens of black administrative staff without cause and hundreds of black teachers before leaving the Chicago Public Schools and staging unsuccessful campaigns for Cook County Board President (Cook County includes Chicago and has a population of 5.5 million) and Illinois governor. He was succeeded by Arne Duncan, now US Secretary of Education, who took Vallas's “innovations” in running schools like businesses to new heights first locally, and then nationally.
Vallas next landed in Philadelphia, where, surrounded himself with the usual dubious cloud of yes-men and consultants engineered the privatization of a significant chunk of that city's public schools, selling off public buildings to charter operators and well-connected developers and firing hundreds more mostly black teachers. Though a Democrat, Vallas's “blame the teachers, blame the deficits, blame the parents” rhetoric and practice exactly matched those of Republican Michelle Rhee. He left Philly schools in a shambles, just in time to make New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Although Democrats are more than willing to take campaign donations from teachers unions, they take a back seat to no Republicans when it comes to blaming teachers and firing them, especially black teachers by the thousands. Long term teachers are likely to live in and near the schools they teach in, and are anchors of their churches and all kinds of local community organizations. That makes them inviting targets for the politicians of either party. Democrat Arne Duncan called Katrina “the best thing that ever happened to public education in New Orleans.” It was Paul Vallas who as head of the new school district closed each and every one of more than one hundred New Orleans public schools and fired everybody from principals to janitors and lunch ladies. The justifications, trumpeted by elite media in each city Vallas stopped in were the same – schools were failing, low test scores, teachers paid too much and were too lazy, and so on, and the solutions were always the same – diverting public monies to charter schools, merit pay schemes based on standardized test scores, testing and more testing, and ultimately privatization. And in the spirit of never letting a good disaster go to waste, when the earthquake hit Haiti, the Vallas chainsaw was needed to “reform” public education there as well.
Vallas's next gig after Haiti was schools CEO in Bridgeport, CN, where his attempts at mass firings were questioned by a public outcry and by local school officials, who reminded everybody that in 15 years of “CEO-ing” the nation's largest public systems he'd never bothered to qualify as a classroom teacher in any subject anywhere. Connecticut, as it happened, had a statute on the books that required schools chiefs to do just that. Added to the massive amounts of blood and gore on the man's chainsaw, and the unseemly cloud of graft corruption that accompanied Vallas everywhere, Bridgeport was more than ready to be rid of him.
So where did Paul Vallas land next? Where is he now? Illinois governor Patrick Quinn, a Democrat, summoned Vallas back to Illinois to run for Lieutenant Governor on his 2014 ticket. Lieutenant Governor is often the stepping stone to the governor's office, so the clear intention is to make Chainsaw Paul governor in 2020, the capstone to his devastating career.
Illinois is hardly unique here. California has a Democrat governor too. In the last election Governor Brown agreed with his Republican challenger that no state employees except judges, high level administrators, politicians and cops merited defined-benefit pensions. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, also the son of a previous Democrat governor has locked horns with the new mayor of New York City's timid and limited efforts to cut back on the extreme favoritism the city shows in allocating resources to charter schools while starving traditional public schools.
We should never forget that the idea that all children in a society deserve quality education is historically a new and revolutionary idea. Even more revolutionary is the notion that students, parents, communities and teachers ought to design and control every aspect of those educational processes. There is a struggle of historic proportions going on over the question of education, and ultimately all of us will have to take a side. Jerry Brown, Andrew Cuomo, Michelle Rhee, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel and Chainsaw Paul Vallas are on one side. What side are we on?