Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The only thing Louisiana’s next schools superintendent needs to build is momentum for reform. By Walter Pierce


Paul Pastorek looked like a broken man in the photograph on last Wednesday’s Advocate front page. Taken at the press conference in which he announced his sudden and unexpected resignation — rumors of his departure began circulating just hours before the presser, to the shock of supporters and, no doubt, the unmitigated relief of the public-education establishment — the 57-year-old lawyer was clearly spent, tears welling in his eyes. After four years battling the often intransigent, turf-sensitive public-education system in Louisiana, Paul Pastorek was beaten — a wobbly-kneed boxer resigned to the TKO.

Pastorek was at the vanguard of one of the very few issues that rallies our disparate ideological spectra: public education reform. Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals and conservatives generally agree: public education in the United States, and especially in Louisiana, needs not just a little tinkering under hood; it needs an overhaul.

Pastorek tried to do that. What he got for his efforts was a series of blows beneath the belt. And the guy who was supposed to be in his corner was slow between rounds with the stool and bucket of water.

When asked by a reporter whether pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal precipitated his departure, Pastorek politely hedged: “I don’t respond well to pressure anyway,” he said, which isn’t exactly answering the question.

Although the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education appoints the state superintendent, the governor, who controls three of the 11 seats on the board, has a great deal of sway in who holds the post. Pastorek, the former BESE president, was appointed during the term of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, but Jindal recommended that his contract be renewed.

What Jindal didn’t do in the intervening years is have Pastorek’s back when it counted. The governor occasionally said the right things — that he supported the school-reform measures championed by the state super — during Pastorek’s four-year fight with the collectively formidable Louisiana School Boards Association, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Association of School Superintendents. But Jindal’s “support” never warmed above tepid when we could gauge its temperature at all.

Pastorek went it alone, save for a small cadre of state lawmakers, newspaper editorial boards and good-government groups. It was a fight he was destined to lose.

It didn’t help that Pastorek had a terrible bedside manner with the education establishment. He could be brusque, dismissive, condescending even. And as a lawyer he was painted an outsider by the professional educators stung by his candor.

More than 650,000 kids are in our public-education system. Considering where Louisiana stands nationally, it’s fair to say hundreds of thousands of them are getting the shaft.

Losing Pastorek, who announced he’s taking a job as lead counsel for a major aerospace firm headed by his old pal Sean O’Keefe, isn’t the worst thing to happen last week to public education in Louisiana. Jindal’s announcement that he hopes a “consensus builder” replaces Pastorek is.

What consensus, pray tell, will the next state super build? School boards, district superintendents, teachers and the unions that represent them have had their heads in the sand for far too long. We don’t need consensus, unless the consensus is that the way we’ve been educating students in our public schools has been somewhere south of lacking; that there’s been too little accountability and low expectations; that we must do better.

That’s the kind of consensus Paul Pastorek tried to build. And that’s what broke him.

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