BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Paul G. Vallas, a leader in the effort to shake up American education, has wrestled with unions in Chicago, taken on hurricane-ravaged schools in New Orleans and confronted a crumbling educational system in Haiti.
Now he faces what may be his most vexing challenge yet: Fending off a small but spirited crowd of advocates working to unseat him as superintendent of one of Connecticut’s lowest-performing and highest-poverty school districts.
Bridgeport, a relatively small urban school district with just 21,000 students, is at the center of one of the most contentious educational disputes in the country as Mr. Vallas seeks to salvage his hard-charging agenda amid complaints that he is unqualified for the job.
Parents are upset over his plans to increase the use of student testing. Union officials have denounced his insistence that administrators frequently visit classrooms to evaluate teachers, as well as his history of enthusiastic support for charter schools. And community activists argue that he consistently shuts out dissenting voices.
“We thought we had a good guy,” said Tammy Boyle, a parent leader and mother of two children. “But at each and every turn, he has ignored the wishes and the voices of the people of Bridgeport.”
But Mr. Vallas has his admirers. Leon Woods, 51, an unemployed carpenter, credited a program for struggling students started by Mr. Vallas with helping put his son on track to graduation. “I’ve seen the difference,” Mr. Woods said. “I’ve seen the change.”
Mr. Vallas, who has moved to impose a standardized curriculum and to reorganize central offices in Bridgeport, said he was dismayed by the vitriol. On blogs, which he calls “electronic graffiti,” his critics have called him a racist and compared him to the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The school district’s student population is 49 percent Hispanic and 39 percent black.
“There are some gigantic egos in this town,” Mr. Vallas said in an interview. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Mr. Vallas, who makes $234,000 a year, arrived in Bridgeport less than two years ago with a mandate to rattle the status quo in one of Connecticut’s poorest cities. He was appointed by a state-controlled panel, but a court ruling early in his tenure left him reporting to a locally elected school board, with several of its members calling for his ouster.
Now Mr. Vallas, a veteran of big-city education battles, faces the once-unimaginable prospect that he will be driven out of town by summer’s end. A retired judge filed a lawsuit arguing that his lack of an education degree makes him unfit for the office, despite his years of experience running other school districts. Last month, a superior court judge agreed, and now Mr. Vallas has appealed the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The battle in Bridgeport highlights the divisiveness of change in American education. Critics of the existing system are pushing centralized control, weaker teacher tenure protections and expanded charter schools, and some have made installing superintendents with backgrounds outside of education a priority, causing rifts in many districts.
Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary, said the opposition to Mr. Vallas was “beyond ludicrous.” He said too many school districts were afraid of innovation, clinging to “archaic ideas.”
“This, to me, is just another painfully obvious, crystal-clear example of people caught in an old paradigm,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”
Mr. Vallas was hired in late 2011 to much fanfare: a nationally known advocate of change in education, with stints in Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans on his résumé, coming to the aid of a modest school district mired in budget cuts.
But almost immediately, his support began to erode. The state of Connecticut had been overseeing the Bridgeport district, responding to a dire fiscal situation, but two months into Mr. Vallas’s tenure, the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered the return of an elected school board.
Parents and community advocates who had long opposed the state’s intervention rejoiced. And the Working Families Party, a liberal coalition based in New York City with outposts in Connecticut, made removing Mr. Vallas its mission.
A memo circulated recently by the Working Families Party criticized Mr. Vallas’s hiring of outside consultants, suggesting he was working to privatize the system. “He abuses local school districts to create profits for his business allies, and implements extreme policies that exacerbate racial and economic inequality in the schools,” the memo stated. Mr. Vallas’s opponents said they worried he would move, as he had in other cities, to demand concessions from teachers in contract negotiations, and to expand charter schools, which the opponents believe would drain money from other public schools.
Mr. Vallas had a vulnerability: despite his decades of experience in schools and a master’s degree in political science, he lacked a degree in education, as required by Connecticut law. The state allowed for an exemption, but Mr. Vallas was required to complete a condensed version of the traditional 13-month certification program over the course of several months. “I didn’t view it cynically and I didn’t complain,” Mr. Vallas said.
But in public, he seemed skeptical of the requirement, at one point arguing, “That is like saying Michael Jordan can’t coach basketball because he doesn’t have teacher certification.” His detractors were outraged by the remark, saying it illustrated his arrogant approach to leadership.
Mr. Vallas completed the course, which involved speaking with a professor a few times and writing six papers. But Carmen L. Lopez, a retired judge and education activist, filed a challenge in April contending that Mr. Vallas’s course work was a sham.
“Bridgeport was viewed as so second-class that it could have an unqualified school superintendent,” Ms. Lopez said in an interview. “They don’t do this in the suburbs.”
The legal case has reignited tensions in Bridgeport. Three Working Families Party members have joined a Democrat on the school board in calling for the city to stop paying Mr. Vallas’s legal fees; a five-member majority, led by the board’s chairman, Kenneth H. Moales Jr., has resisted those demands. “I don’t participate in coups,” said Mr. Moales, a defender of Mr. Vallas.
Last week, parents gathered before a school board meeting to hang posters denouncing Mr. Vallas; as the meeting got under way, board members shouted at and interrupted one another.
“Are you finished with your circus?” Mr. Moales asked a critic of the superintendent, shortly before abruptly adjourning the session.
Mr. Vallas, 60, is a onetime politician who came within two percentage points of defeating Rod R. Blagojevich in a primary for the Illinois governor’s office in 2002. He said he did not know what he would do after Bridgeport, though he ruled out a return to politics. He runs an educational consulting business on the side. His clients have included schools in Illinois and Indiana.
But Mr. Vallas said he was determined to serve as superintendent in Bridgeport for at least one more year, so that he could help the district find a leader who would maintain the changes he has set in motion.
“If I left tomorrow, it’s going to be hard to break those things,” he said, seeming hopeful. But he added, “I never underestimate the capacity of a hostile board to destroy a good thing.”