Jorge Cabrera, who worked for the pro-charter school organization Excel Bridgeport, blows the lid off Bridgeport’s “education reform movement” in a buyer’s remorse commentary titled “A Repentant Reformer’s Reflections.” He writes about wealthy interests, cultish Ivy Leaguers, pricey New York consultants and radical policies influencing control of public education through his former employer Excel Bridgeport. It’s a worthy read that highlights the fierce, money-driven battle to control city schools. Cabrera recently left Excel Bridgeport that has lowered its public profile following a series of education-initiative losses. He can be reached at JlrCabrera@aol.com.
For nearly three years, I had been involved in what has often been referred to by some as the “education reform movement” in Bridgeport. In 2012, I was presented with a unique opportunity to work for a new local organization that would work “with the community” to reform the public schools.
The mission was to work towards helping Bridgeport students increase their academic performance and by extension, I thought, lower the dropout rate, increase the rate of college attendance and teach parents how to effectively advocate for the resources and supports their children needed to succeed in school. As a Bridgeport public school graduate and the first person in my family to attend and graduate from an institution of higher learning, I knew, first hand, how the trajectory of one’s life could be dramatically changed with the attainment of that often coveted credential … a college degree. Further, as a native Bridgeporter I was sold on the prospect of working with the community I grew up in and loved to help improve educational outcomes for thousands of Bridgeport students. However, what I did not fully appreciate at the time, but soon found out, was that I was smack in the middle of a simmering firestorm that would divide the community I cared for so dearly and force me to question my own assumptions about “education reform” and the people in front and behind this “movement.”
Though I did not fully know it at the time, a series of manipulative and deceitful political moves were made before I began my work in the “movement” that would be revealed to me in over 200 conversations with many Bridgeport leaders and friends. These “moves” would severely taint the work I would embark on and proved to be a major stumbling block to organizing the community.
Despite these challenges, I began my work full of hope and excited to put my skills and experience toward the noble goal of improving the Bridgeport school system. Unfortunately, what I learned in the coming years was the incredible lengths some people with access to great wealth and political power would go to in order to privatize an already overburdened and underfunded school district and the ideology that undergirded it.
This is my story.
The Best and the Brightest
As I began my work in the “education reform movement” in Bridgeport, I noticed a plethora of ivy league educated “consultants” and “transformational leaders” that littered the often loose coalition of funders, new organizations and executive directors. From the beginning, it was clear that many of these new “leaders” that were emerging were well credentialed. They had graduated from prestigious universities and, it was presumed (though not by me), that alone qualified them to lead. Many were very young (recent graduates), energetic, unmarried with no children and little life experience. They often exhibited a cultish commitment to “the movement.” Their zeal for “education reform” and “saving the children” often resulted in a bizarre abdication of critical thinking that made a mockery of their high-priced “education.” For instance, in many meetings I attended, many of these acolytes extolled the virtues of charter schools as the only solution to closing the achievement gap in Bridgeport but never once did anyone bother to discuss the ample research (i.e. “Teaching with Poverty in Mind“) available regarding the negative impact of poverty on academic achievement or that Bridgeport had several public magnet schools that outperformed (as measured by standardized test scores) many charter schools.
These magnet schools had long track records (20-plus years) of success and I assumed we should advocate for what we know, firmly, works. Despite this evidence, there was never any serious discussion regarding expanding magnet school options or advocating for high quality, universal preschool programs (research shows the achievement gap begins at this level). The entire approach to “education reform” lacked any serious understanding of the many variables (i.e., social-emotional issues, poverty, funding, English language learners) that clearly effect a child’s ability to learn. Anytime a more dynamic and multifaceted approach to closing the achievement gap was raised it was quickly dismissed as “making excuses.” The atmosphere vacillated between a callous indifference to the real challenges Bridgeport children faced and arrogant dismissiveness. Permeated throughout these various organizations that formed a loose network of power was a culture that prized blind dedication to the “mission” and socially affirmed and promoted those who obeyed and exhibited “urgency” in “reforming” the “failing schools.” The people in “the movement” made it clear that it was up to the “best and brightest” of minds to “transform” the “system” as “outside influencers.” By “best and brightest” they almost exclusively meant people who would do their bidding without question and certainly not anyone that would exhibit any degree of independent or critical thought. On more than one occasion, when the argument was made that the solutions to the multilayered challenge of public education needed to come from the people and required an authentic, engaging process with the Bridgeport community the response was often glib at best. I recall in one strategic planning meeting when I advocated for authentic engagement and patience to allow parents the time to become informed on the various issues and was told to, “just use language to convince” the parents and impress upon them a sense of “urgency.” Another person told me, “It’s all about how you say it.” It was becoming increasingly clear to me that there was little interest in authentic community engagement and problem solving. The fact that I was hired to do exactly that was lost on virtually everyone! They were talking at me not to me. I began to sense that someone or something I was not fully aware of was calling the shots behind the scenes and many of these young ivy leaguers were the mercenaries on the front lines tasked with implementing the agenda. This whole enterprise was quickly becoming astroturfing and I was in the middle of it. Worse, I was starting to feel like I was hired to put lipstick on a pig and it was beginning to burn me on the inside. Nevertheless, through it all, I never gave up hope and tried to create spaces for honest, authentic and fact-based discussions inside “the movement” with limited success.
The Knight in Shining Armor
My first meeting with Paul Vallas was like a whirlwind. He barely came up for air! He spoke in a rapid fire cadence and despite my best efforts I could not engage him in any substantive conversations. He rode into the city as the new superintendent of schools like a knight in shining armor. Immediately and repeatedly, I was told by many in the “reform community” that Vallas was a “godsend,” a “transformational leader” with an international reputation of turning school systems around, increasing academic outcomes and changing the lives of, literally, thousands of students. The praise heaped on him was ubiquitous. He often spoke in soundbites and we were told that we were to be a “critical friend” to the new superintendent. We would support him when he was right and criticize him when he was wrong. Our main constituents, I was told, were the families and students. Good enough, I thought at the time. In reality, we were dispatched to drum up support in the community for virtually every policy change or initiative proposed by Vallas. Any thoughtful questioning of the efficacy of his proposals was met with stone silence or the injection of the “urgency” argument which was intended to and had the effect of silencing any meaningful discussion. If one pushed too hard to open up an authentic discussion regarding Vallas’s proposals “the movement” would send strong signals that the questioner was being disloyal and that such questioning was deemed heresy. It was as if a “bunker mentality” had descended on many in “the movement.” You were either with them or against them. Despite this hostile environment, on one occasion, I was able to engage Vallas in a rare moment of reflection and candor. We were discussing different school models and supports for students and I casually asked Vallas if he thought traditional neighborhood public schools could succeed if they were given adequate funding and supports for students, teachers and families. His response was very revealing. He stated, “Yes! Of course they can, but my charter (school) friends don’t like it when I say that.” It was a rare, candid moment that spoke volumes and provided a rare glimpse into the mindset of the “reformers.” The veil was starting to be lifted. As I continued to have extensive conversations with many community leaders I began to appreciate the deceitful and manipulative manner in which Vallas was hired to lead the Bridgeport school system. It was all unfolding before me and the truth was emerging.
Power to the People?
The crown jewel of the “education reform movement” in Bridgeport was the 2012 charter revision ballot question that would of given the Mayor the authority to appoint the entire board of education, among other powers. The “movement” was in a frenzy to win this election. We were told that “the people would decide” and “they (the people) have the power.” All of the work we were engaged in to build relationships, trust and educate parents regarding the school system and education policy was abruptly halted to focus on winning this ballot question election. It was a pressure cooker! When I tried to actually read the proposed language changes to the city’s charter and have discussions with parents so that both I and they were fully informed on what we were asking people to vote on, I was quickly pushed aside in favor of a group of highly compensated New York City media consultants who came in and began directing instead of facilitating the “discussions.” Immediately, the focus was on marketing and sloganeering. Worse, we were trying to build the plane while it was in the air! The whole thing was rushed and disorganized. We were told to make sure we communicated to the public that voting in favor of the city charter change was good for parents, students and would lead to better academic outcomes. The insinuation was that anyone who was against the charter revision changes was anti-child or anti-education. When parents or community leaders asked questions that required more substantive, fact-based responses we were coached to respond to everything in soundbites and with shallow arguments that lacked any grounding in reality. It was the worse kind of insult to the community’s intelligence and pandered to the worse aspects of human nature and–it almost worked.
Revelation and the Shock Doctrine
My nearly three years in the “movement” in Bridgeport revealed to me the incredible lengths that private, often unseen and unaccountable power will go to in order to create and capitalize on a crisis. In Bridgeport, that crisis in our public education system was created by powerful forces at the local and state level who systematically starved the school system by withholding necessary school funding (Shock #1) which then created a crisis that set the stage for a takeover (Shock #2) of the Bridgeport board of education on the eve of the fourth of July in 2011. Essentially, these forces were engaged in a form of social engineering under the guise of “urgency” and “reform.” To be clear, in this “movement” there are people who have good intentions and sincerely want to improve the conditions of Bridgeport’s public schools but they do not sit at the tables of power when strategic decisions are made and their voices are often silenced. Their talents, skills and knowledge are often used to serve a larger, opaque agenda that is dictated by a radical ideology of deregulation and privatization. Shot throughout most, if not all, of the education reform “movement” you will find the radical ideology of economist Milton Friedman. Looking back, there were moments when this mindset (disaster capitalism) was revealed to me in meetings. On one occasion, a very influential operator in the “education reform” community was discussing the “amazing opportunity” that revealed itself after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans decimated the population and led to the “charterization” of the public school system. He expounded that sometimes you have to, “… burn the village to save it …” and that what we (the “reform community”) are essentially involved in is, “creative destruction.” Worse, he argued that we needed a “clean slate” in order for real “change” to happen in the school system in Bridgeport. But this was my home. This was the city I grew up in and where most of my family lived and worked. You want to burn down their city!? You want to destroy it so you can be creative!? For whom? It was all surreal. I was done.
In Naomi Klein’s book and, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” she outlines how powerful economic and political forces harness terrible shocks to implement radical policies to privatize and profit from public resources. In Bridgeport, this ideology played itself out on our public school system and, for a season at least, seemed to be the dominant ideology on the verge of assuming complete power over the public school system. We almost succeeded. Thanks to the people of the City of Bridgeport–we did not and that’s a good thing.