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A Change and an Opportunity - Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Change and an Opportunity


          Louisiana’s superintendent of public education, yesterday, resigned his position to explore opportunities outside of government.

           One of the most controversial state superintendents in the United States, Paul Pastorek abrasively pushed his agenda that relied on state take-over of lower performing schools and substituting charters for most of them.  This strategy was clearly seen by public education stakeholders as a step toward turning them into for-profit operated schools. 

           Aroused public school stakeholders moved through the Louisiana School Boards Association and the new Coalition for Louisiana Schools to focus attention on the failure of the Pastorek-run Recovery School District to honor the promises made at the time of takeover.

           The most recent Southern Media & Opinion Research state-wide poll, released last week, reveals that 59.1 percent of New Orleans area respondents believed there was little to no public education improvement during the current administration’s tenure.  Another, unscientific poll conducted on-line by the Times Picayune revealed that 51.21 respondents agreed that Pastorek had not done a good job for local schools.

 \         Pastorek departs on May 15 to become general counsel at a Virginia aerospace company.

           His four years have been a voyage through stormy seas with most local education stakeholders prodded by his management style into growing opposition. 

          School board members, Tuesday, attending the LSBA Capitol Conference at the State Museum heard suggestions that Gov. Jindal was pressing state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members to appoint the newly hired RSD Superintendent, John White.

White, the Deputy Chancellor of New York City Schools until this month, led that city’s efforts to expand charter schools, and to co-locate them in already existing schools.  He’s a former Teach for America teacher, and a graduate of the Eli Broad Superintendent Academy.

Reports from parent groups in New York were of a controversial relationship which ignored parent concerns about overcrowding and inequitable distribution of resources and space.  The same conditions and same complaints have been rife in the New Orleans RSD schools under Pastorek’s and Paul Vallas’ stewardship.

Announcement of Pastorek’s pending departure brought responses from many public education stakeholders.  Pastorek's departure coupled with a requirement that BESE appoint a successor by a two-thirds vote opens the door to school boards to help frame the selection of his replacement, according to Nolton Senegal, Sr., executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.


"Among criteria for this job,” he added, "are trust, a respect for local public schools, a proven record of achievement in education, dedication to kids learning, and a demonstrated ability to improve troubled schools.”

 "Looking beyond Louisiana's borders for this key candidate doesn't guarantee a quality candidate, "Senegal said.

Pastorek raised the ire of school boards and of National Board Certified Teachers all across the state when the stipend promised by the administration was cut from the state education budget.  It was left to local school boards to find money to honor the state promise of a $5,000 annual stipend for completing the arduous task of becoming nationally certified.

The National Board Certified Teachers of Louisiana (NBCT) became extremely disenchanted with Mr. Pastorek and his administration over the unfunded mandate of their stipends.  The NBCT teachers group reported fallen morale over their effort being down-graded.

"We need someone who can look past the numbers and know that teachers see the children in front of them as partners on a learning journey and not as instruments of pay increases,” said Jill W. Saia of the East Baton Rouge Parish Schools system.

 Political insiders say that Gov. Jindal asked for Pastorek’s resignation after the Superintendent managed to alienate most of the state legislature with his imperious style.  But Pastorek did not simply self-destruct.  A large part of the credit, according to Lance Hill, executive director, Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, also goes to the activists and researchers who for five years have documented the failures and growing inequality in the privatized education model that Pastorek advocated in New Orleans.   Surrounding Parishes (counties) came to understand that privatization and the dependency on novice teachers ultimately undermined local democratic control and a stable and professional teacher corp. 

          Though the state had taken over schools in New Orleans on the promise that they would return them once brought up to standards, Pastorek reneged on the promise and successfully pushed a policy to allow charters to decide if they would return to local control—something they will never opt for.  In addition, Pastorek abolished neighborhood schools so that charters could skim the best students throughout the district resulting in an academically segregated two-tiered school system that locked the bottom tier students into chronically failing schools. 

          When Pastorek attempted to expand the anti-democratic privatization policies to suburban and rural districts, the schools boards were already well informed about the eventual outcome of the encroachments on local democratic control.  In response, education leaders in several Parishes formed the Coalition for Public Education which exerted considerable political influence in recent weeks and no doubt influenced Jindal’s decision. 

          Pastorek’s resignation can be claimed as a victory for the advocates of local democratic control and equity in education.  But there is little question that Jindal, who favors privatizing virtually all government services, will replace Pastorek with someone with the same goals but more diplomacy. 


Nonetheless, the events demonstrate that even when elites exploit a natural disaster to impose their vision of change, a well organized network of democratic advocates, equipped with solid research and a clear message, can protect other communities from a similar fate. 


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