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Paul Vallas

Paul Vallas, who has done stints as the leader of several major school districts, including Chicago and Philadelphia, is stepping down on May 1st as the superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans. During his tenure there, he transformed the city’s school system, turning it into the first place in the country where a majority of schools are independently run, public charter schools. He recently spoke with The Hechinger Report at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association, held this year in New Orleans, about similar reform efforts in Detroit, the resignation of Cathie Black in New York City, and his plans for the future.

The Detroit experiment with charter schools is being compared to what you did in New Orleans. What do you think of what they’re doing?

The question is do you have enough charter providers. I think what Detroit has to do—they have to right-size themselves. Or the budget spiral is going to continue.

One of the things I did when I came in here was I had to assess how many schools we needed. This system was built for 120,000 kids. After the hurricane, we have less than 40,000. You can’t sustain a system like that, so you have to right-size the district.

Converting schools that you were thinking of closing to charters, that’s not getting at the end-of-the-line financial problems that plague the district.

John White, a former deputy chancellor in New York City, is taking your old job. Is he the right guy to run the New Orleans schools?

I think it’s a superb pick. I think of the candidates for the job, John was the most qualified. He’s got the disposition. He’s worked in a really challenging environment. New York City is tough for anybody. It’s a rough and tough environment. He worked for a very demanding superintendent, and that helps.

He’s been involved in overseeing more schools than he’s actually going to have here. He’s also a school reformer; he’s been able to embrace charters without alienating traditional schools. I think he’s had a cordial relationship. He understands school reform, he’s got the right skills, the right mindset, the right temperament, the right experience—I think it’s the perfect choice.

Michelle Rhee is out, Cathie Black is out, and we’ve seen this turn to people like Andres Alonso and Kaya Henderson in D.C., who have a softer touch, they’re not hard-charging reformer types…

…Kind of like what I am.

Is there a shift in the education-reform movement toward more collaborative leaders?

I think that Black was the wrong pick, and I think she was presented wrong. That’s not to take anything away from her. The way she was introduced to the community, that kind of set her back.

I think [Dennis] Walcott is very capable. He survived with the mayor this long—I remember when I interviewed for that job [New York City Schools Chancellor], I remember Walcott was one of the people I interviewed with. That’s probably the pick [Bloomberg] should have made in the first place.

Do you see yourself being a superintendent again? (Vallas has been doing international consulting work for the past year or so through the Inter-American Development Bank.)

No, I like doing turnarounds, which is why I went to Haiti and Chile. Although the Chileans are extraordinary; it’s an extraordinary country. They had a million children displaced in Chile because of the earthquake—the second most-powerful earthquake in history—and in 45 days they had all those kids back in school. It’s amazing. I joked that next time there’s a hole in the Gulf of Mexico, they should bring the Chileans in to fill it, because they move in with precision.

So do they [the Chileans] actually need you?

[Laughs.] Something about the Chileans, they do not suffer from hubris. They are always looking for solutions, even if those solutions are beyond their shores. They’re about results.

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