The United Way of Dane County has withdrawn its support for a visit this weekend by a former Chicago and Philadelphia superintendent who critics say promotes anti-union approaches to public school reform, saying it misunderstood the nature of the visit and did not have time to vet the speaker.
Paul Vallas, interim superintendent of the Bridgeport School District in Connecticut, is speaking Saturday at 1 p.m. at La Follette High School.
Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson, who organized the event, said he invited Vallas to talk about school reform and answer questions on how to improve academic achievement.
Vallas will be joined by Urban League of Greater Madison president Kaleem Caire, YWCA CEO Rachel Krinsky, former Madison School Board member Juan Jose Lopez, teacher Kong Vang and Kimberly Boyd, National Vice President for Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Johnson called Vallas “one of the most respected urban school superintendents in the nation.”
“Paul Vallas has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to support academic achievement, he has raised test scores in urban communities, built hundreds of schools while maintaining great working relationships with community leaders, teachers and unions,” Johnson said.
Johnson noted Vallas also led the Recovery School District in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and also has worked with the government of Haiti to reconstruct its education system. In 2002 he lost to Rod Blagojevich for the Democratic nomination for governor in Illinois.
In the initial promotion of the event, Johnson said the Madison and Verona school districts, the United Way and the Urban League were collaborating with the Boys & Girls Club to host the event.
But after hearing from Vallas critics, the United Way asked that its name be removed from any communications related to the event.
United Way president Leslie Howard said the talk was initially billed as “a very informal event.” But when it learned of the public policy issues that would be raised, Howard said, the charity determined it didn’t have time to put the the matter before its board to review, so it backed out.
Howard stressed that the United Way was not taking a position on Vallas’ views, pro or con.
“We take very seriously and are extremely judicious on taking a position on any public policy issue related to the issues we’re concerned about,” Howard said. “We just weren’t in a position to go through the process.”
T.J. Mertz, a local education blogger and liberal activist, contacted the United Way last week with concerns about the organization’s involvement.
Mertz said Vallas’ ideas of reform include more testing, more charter and voucher schools, more privatization of services, and further marginalization of unions. He also criticized Vallas for supporting military academies and book covers featuring the Ten Commandments in Chicago schools.
“His idea of school reform damages schools,” Mertz said. “He has nothing positive to contribute to Madison or anywhere else.”