20100811-cover-0101Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Written by Nathan Stubbs

Are strained relations with state Superintendent Paul Pastorek holding back progress for the Lafayette Parish School System?


“Who’s seen the movie Cool Hand Luke?” State Superintendent Paul Pastorek is curious, given the younger crowd of 30-somethings he’s addressing tonight. The 1967 Paul Newman classic, about a prisoner in a Georgia prison camp with a rebellious streak, produced many quotable lines, Pastorek says. Among them is one delivered by the prison camp captain, who tells his tenants, “You gonna get your mind right.”

“You gotta get your mind right,” Pastorek paraphrases, setting up what will become a recurring theme in his speech. Pairing a conservative haircut and dark suit with a tie of brightly colored painted hand prints, Pastorek combines the look of a no nonsense executive with that of a fun-loving dad. But his persona and presentation remain serious.

Perhaps no other chief of Louisiana’s public education system has become such a lightning rod in as short a time as Paul Pastorek. A high-powered Republican corporate attorney with the firm Adams and Reese (President Bush appointed him general counsel to NASA in 2002) with a history of championing education reform initiatives, Pastorek displayed the kind of focus and tough-minded approach that, post-Katrina, made him seem like a perfect fit for the superintendent’s job. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco appointed Pastorek in 2007; he was retained the following year by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

In his short tenure, he’s pushed a proliferation of charter schools and an ambitious agenda to scale back the authority of local school boards to make school systems run more like well-oiled corporations, with the superintendent as CEO. At times, his bold initiatives have paid big dividends. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a consortium of education providers in Louisiana and Tennessee $30 million in a highly competitive grant program that aims to support and expand high-quality charter schools. The grant was awarded as part of the Investing in Innovation program, commonly referred to as i3, which is designed to support the nation’s boldest reform plans. But while no one is better at galvanizing devout education reformers, these days Pastorek doesn’t seem to have many friends left in public education circles.

 

20100811-cover-0102
State Superintendent Paul Pastorek points to eighth-grade
leap scores and graduation rates as proof that Lafayette
Parish is a prime reform candidate.

Tonight, Pastorek is speaking before a friendly crowd. It’s one of the regular meetings of the705, a group of young professionals that bills itself as Lafayette’s “Emerging Leaders Organization.” Among the special guests at the meeting are several school board candidates — all of whom will stand up after Pastorek’s presentation to introduce themselves and speak briefly on why they’re running, and to add their thoughts on Pastorek’s presentation. District 2 candidate Greg Davis, a longtime Pastorek ally, will stress that if elected, he would not want an adversarial relationship with the state department but rather look to leverage its resources and expertise for the betterment of the school system.

Curiously absent from this event are any incumbent school board members or Lafayette Parish School System district administrators. At one point in the meeting, one of the organizers relays that all school board candidates were invited, but that this event happened to fall at the same time as one of the school board’s own regularly scheduled meetings (the705 also holds its meetings on Wednesday evenings).

Turning to his Power Point, Pastorek wastes little time in getting to the premise of his case for reform: that all children, regardless of their backgrounds or their parents’ involvement, have proven that they can become capable and engaged students. “I am so sick of us blaming [education failures] on parents and kids, especially poor ones,” Pastorek exclaims, “because I know it can be done.”

Midway through his presentation, Pastorek cites two systemic problems in the state’s education system today: 1) The school system is a monopoly with little competition from charter schools and, 2) The system accepts mediocrity and doesn’t demand excellence.

“If we can fix these two problems,” he adds, “you’ll see public education rise dramatically, and this is the best city in the state to see that happen.”

Pastorek then references a statistic that had never before been cited: There are more kids who pass the eighth grade LEAP test, he says, that end up dropping out of school in Lafayette than anywhere else in the state, by a wide margin. “It’s not academics that are holding kids back in Lafayette,” he continues. “This is a target-rich environment.”

The suggestion was that Lafayette, more so than any other city in state, was primed for excellence — a place the state believes could get the most bang for its buck in addressing graduation rates. From the district’s perspective, it was a slap in the face, especially given the fact that no one from the district office or school board was at the meeting to challenge Pastorek’s assertion.

Pastorek’s comment, reported on The Independent Weekly blog, blindsided the LPSS’ central office, but local school officials say it also fits Pastorek’s M.O., and that it’s not the first time he’s come to town with disparaging remarks about Lafayette’s school system. Spend any time at LPSS asking opinions about the state department, and employees will soon evoke another line from Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

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Lafayette Superintendent Burnell Lemoine on Pastorek: "When you make
these blanket statements, you should know what you're talking about."

When you make these blanket statements, you should know what you’re talking about,” LPSS Superintendent Burnell Lemoine says, adding it’s something the local system has been plagued by. “On anything,” he says, “regardless of whether it’s this or any other statement about the system, it’s very, very unsettling for me when statements like that are made when you really don’t know what’s being done in the parish. I would compare our system to any system in the state as far as what we’re providing to children, the programs that we have, the opportunities we provide to them.”

Lemoine had his staff go back and check the data Pastorek was referencing. LPSS’ No Child Left Behind specialist, Tom Spencer, did find a study that followed students passing the English portion of LEAP who went on to drop out. While ranking high on the list, Lafayette wasn’t leading the state. Furthermore, with some of the biggest high schools in the state, Lafayette will naturally place high on any study that doesn’t rank its subjects as a percentage of overall school population (see sidebar on Lafayette’s graduation numbers). “In this instance, [Pastorek] interpreted the data incorrectly,” Spencer says.

Lemoine says he found it curious that Pastorek chose to highlight the issue in the manner that he did, rather than mention, for instance, that Lafayette was recently cited by industry journal Education Week as having some of the most improved graduation rates in the country. “[Pastorek] likes to make it look like none of us want to improve, none of us want to look at innovative ideas,” adds school board Vice President Mike Hefner, “and he’s having to drag us kicking and screaming into doing the right thing for the students.”

The incident illustrates the lack of communication between LPSS and Pastorek. “No it’s not [the first time],” Lemoine says. “Have I addressed it? Yes, I have. I’ve discussed it with him.” Asked about the nature of that conversation, Lemoine demurs: “It’s a private conversation.”

Reached just before deadline for this story, Pastorek stood by his assertions, while striking a conciliatory tone.

“First of all, I don’t feel like I’m miscommunicating,” he says. “Depending on how you analyze data you can say [Lafayette] is the most or the most per capita or maybe it’s the most given the circumstances, but at the end of the day there’s a tremendous opportunity [for improvement].”

“And look,” he continues, “I don’t want us to be arguing. I’d rather for us to work collaboratively together to figure out how we’re going to get all kids to graduate on time; that’s the point. And there is a great opportunity in Lafayette, and I want to work with people in Lafayette. Why don’t we just agree that there’s a great opportunity?”

Pastorek also dismisses the notion that there has been strife between his office and the LPSS. “We’ve reached out to the district and we’re trying to support them in every way we possibly can. But I’m not here to complain about the relationship. I’m here to try to support and help, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

Lafayette does appear in many ways poised to become a flagship school system for Paul Pastorek’s reform agenda. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the state’s Race To The Top application, which Pastorek has made a high priority. Race To The Top is a program set up by the Obama administration in which school systems compete for federal grant dollars (a total of $4.35 billion) allocated to help districts achieve new levels of excellence and innovation.

Last month, the federal government announced Louisiana was among 18 finalists for the second round of Race To The Top. If successful in its bid, the state stands to be awarded up to $175 million — money that will then be split up among the state department of education and the participating school districts. Only 28 of Louisiana’s 70 school districts are participating in Race To The Top, in addition to more than 50 individual charter schools.

In scoring the proposals, federal reviewers for the program noted the LPSS stood out as one of its model districts that had already adopted many of the programs advocated in the state’s proposal. The state’s proposal is based largely on what the federal government has stated as the four areas it is looking for improvement in: increased data, standards and assessments, teacher effectiveness and turning around failing schools.

But in another sign of the strained relationship with Pastorek, before the Lafayette Parish School Board would agree to sign on to the state’s Race To The Top proposal, it insisted on the inclusion of an opt-out clause, stipulating that at any time, for whatever reason, the district could back out. That also caught the eye of federal reviewers, who felt it showed a lack of commitment. It was especially harmful in the case of Louisiana, which struggled to get districts to sign up for Race To The Top and was counting on showing that the districts participating were completely devoted. Board member Hefner, who inserted the opt-out clause into the agreement, cited “a real big trust factor with the state superintendent” as one of the main reasons for needing the escape mechanism.

In April, Chris Meyer, special advisor to Pastorek and executive director of the state’s Race To The Top application, visited the Lafayette Parish School Board at one of its regular meetings. Meyer wanted the board to reconsider the clause. As a gesture of goodwill, he was offering a signed letter from Pastorek giving his word that Lafayette could back out of the program at any time if it no longer wanted to participate.

“Speaking for myself,” responded Hefner, a demographer who works with school systems around Louisiana, “I’m all over this state and there are just too many things that I hear that are inconsistent, where [Pastorek] tells one group one thing and he tells another group another thing and quite honestly a letter from him saying that you have an opportunity to opt out at any time holds very little water with me.”

Other board members then quickly piled on. Ed Sam told Meyer that Pastorek seems unwilling to work with school boards. Shelton Cobb later added this blunt assessment: “All information and knowledge does not emanate from Baton Rouge.”

Hefner insists that the state department has recently begun borrowing heavily from Lafayette programs, such as its “discipline matrix” blueprint for uniform disciplinary actions, in developing best practices to promote across the state with Race To The Top and other programs. “On one hand, [Pastorek] is dissing us in front of community groups in Lafayette Parish but on the other hand, he’s sending his people over here on their hands and knees begging us to stay in Race To The Top because we have all these best practices and the application will not be near as strong without us. So which is it, either our system sucks or our system is a model? Tell me which, Mr. Pastorek.”

Another of Hefner’s issues is the preferential treatment Pastorek seems to give to charter schools, at the expense of public school systems. It’s no secret the state superintendent has been a staunch advocate of charter schools, which still rely on public funds but form their own governing bodies independent of public school district’s management. When Pastorek spoke before the705, he told the audience, “You know what happens in schools where they don’t have a bunch of administrators telling them what to do and how to do it? They get creative. If you had 41 charter schools in Lafayette, you’d have more creativity and initiative than you could handle.”

School districts complain that while Pastorek touts the autonomy of charters, the state has sent down more and more mandates and restrictions on how public schools must operate and teach students, stifling any creativity and initiative from within the districts. “It’s hypocritical,” Hefner says. Lafayette is one of many school districts that have complained about the state department withholding promised increases in state funding and cutting back on other public school programs in order to invest more state resources in charter schools. Last week, the St. Landry Parish School Board voted unanimously to draft a resolution protesting these actions. Board member Scott Richard was quoted in The Advocate saying the resolution will oppose “drastic cuts, the lack of cooperation by Pastorek with public school systems and the lack of trust that Pastorek has created between himself and public schools in this state.”

Ultimately, it may be that Lafayette’s participation in Race To The Top is helping to clear some of the air between the local school district and the state department. While bristling at Pastorek’s cavalier statements, Superintendent Lemoine is encouraged by the dialogue that has occurred thus far with state department reps Chris Meyer and Rayne Martin, the two state department liaisons handling Race To The Top. “We’ve met with them a couple of times, and hopefully that will help in improving the dialogue,” Lemoine says.

Meyer, a young, idealistic former Teach for America educator who joined the department in October, has traveled the state working to put together the Race To The Top application, and has often found himself fielding criticisms of Pastorek’s office from school boards. At the April LPSB meeting, he defended his boss, but acknowledged a broken marriage.

“One thing I’ve noticed that’s bothered me,” he said, “is that it seems so much that people’s objection to Race To The Top and the objection to reform had more to do with personal vendettas and personal problems with an individual who holds a title than it did with the actual ideas in the application. I can stand here and defend the superintendent because I admire him. That’s why I came to work for him, because of what he believes in, but I can’t address these sort of issues that people have with him when he’s not here. I can’t do that for him. There is room for that kind of debate, and there is a lack of trust. I saw it, I saw it when I went around the state, had conversations with school boards and community members, and I saw that left and right.”

Meyer then tried to shift focus onto the bigger picture facing school districts: “We’ve learned this is more important than an application. It’s more important than $175 million. It’s more important than if we win.

What’s important is we’ve got to form a new relationship with you all, with the educators of this state, with the principals, with the district workers. If we don’t do that, no one’s going anywhere. We’re all going to go piece meal. We recognize that.”

“Unless we have that dialogue,” he continued, “we’re going to be running in 50 different directions and we’re going to continue to be 50th worst in the nation and I don’t want that; that’s the reason I came back to this state. I believe that’s the reason you’re on this board. So this is just a sign that we want to continue to talk.”

Graduation Breakdown
A recent study by the state Department of Education, provided in part to The Independent Weekly, analyzed which schools had the highest numbers of high-potential graduates coming into high school who wound up not graduating with their “cohort,” or class. To do this, the department looked at eighth graders who scored 300 or better on the English Language Arts portion of the LEAP test and then entered high school in the fall of 2005. It then followed them through 2009 to see how many did not graduate in four years. The first graph ranks the top 25 schools by sheer number of students who fit this criteria. The second graph is a breakout of the numbers for Lafayette Parish schools that compares a school’s total number of 2009 non-graduates with how many of those scored 300 or better on the English portion of the eighth grade LEAP. The last graph (see page 16) is a re-ranking of the schools included in the first chart based on percentage of overall student population in a school. (This graph only ranked those 25 schools and is not reflective of all schools in the state; Lafayette Parish ranks more favorably when dropout rates are based on percentage rather than total numbers.)

Click here to view the charts

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