It was another day of reckoning when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met recently to decide the question of school takeovers. As I sat in the room that was packed to capacity, I began wondering if those in power would be a champions for children and change or cower as they faced the angry crowd and union pressure. Reformers were outnumbered in the audience, 10 to 1. But fortunately, accountability, reform—and the children—had the votes on the BESE board, 8-3. It was a very good day for change in Louisiana and a defining moment for our state after about 20 years of struggling with a failed system. I commend the BESE board and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek for their decision.
In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, President Barack Obama proclaimed, “…our schools fail too many. … Everywhere we look, there is work to be done … We will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”
But on Jan. 14, just one week prior, I heard many of our local school leaders in Baton Rouge deny this reality and cling to the status quo. What I just can’t understand is, “Why?”
Pastorek made a bold recommendation that involves much risk. But he would not stand by and do nothing—which is what EBR school leaders preferred. Pastorek deserves our admiration for standing firm and doing what’s best for children and our state’s future—despite the vicious personal attacks and pressure put on him statewide. I applaud his act of true public service and courage.
BESE member Chas Roemer, who defended Pastorek’s decision, was fiery in his response to the audience as they asked for more delays. Roemer pointed out that Louisiana’s new accountability measures have won national accolades and noted, “There is no accountability if there are no consequences.” He stated he would not support more delays, but suggested that takeovers should instead be accelerated because the children have been trapped in these failing schools for up to a decade.
Gov. Bobby Jindal weighed in supporting Pastorek’s recommendation to BESE with a statement as well. “I agree with Superintendent Pastorek that it is not sufficient to keep doing the same things over and over and then expect different results. We must be bold as we move to give our children the excellent education they deserve … Failure is not an option.”
But I think back to that packed room, mostly opponents, and still have many questions. I am not the only one. I have read several columns penned by various journalists and share with you their observations.
Veteran writer John Maginnis headlined his syndicated column “Students, Not Systems, Deserve Second Chance.” He notes that large crowds at public meetings usually represent citizen involvement, which is a good thing. But Maginnis writes of this occasion, “From the reaction of the crowd, what one wonders is: where were they and their wrath when the parish school board last met? Or their Parent-Teacher Association?” He notes, “That so many students in failing schools come from impoverished and/or dysfunctional families, however, does not let the principals, school boards and central office administrators off the hook. Despite their efforts, what they have been doing has not been working. After four straight years of failure—for some schools, decades—they are not the ones who deserve a second chance. The kids do.”
Maginnis also singled out BESE member Louella Givens of New Orleans, saying, “She still hasn’t gotten over the 2006 transfer of schools there, which she called ‘repulsive,’ and told the Baton Rouge protesters, ‘Welcome to my nightmare.’ Amazing what she finds repulsive: well-maintained schools where there is a semblance of order and a chance for learning. What does she call the pre-Katrina dilapidated buildings, the chaotic classrooms and the dozens of system employees who were convicted of looting the system? The good ol’ days?”
Will Sentell writes for The Advocate‘s Capitol News Bureau and also wrote a column on this meeting. He said, “Even the most fervent parent, grandparent or guardian has to wonder just what their child is learning in a school that repeatedly fails to meet Louisiana’s modest academic standards. Yet six hours or so of testimony over two days revealed a total disconnect between backers of sweeping change and those who fought it.”
Sentell concluded, “The whole episode points out some of the problems that go with putting a spotlight on Louisiana’s entrenched public education problems. In the past, all 12 Baton Rouge schools, and lots of others statewide, would have kept churning out students without any questions. No public hearings. No passionate testimony. And no way to know that lots of students are failing to learn what they need to know.”
One brave BESE member, Glenny Lee Buquet, finally asked the question, “You have known for years this was coming [12 years]. I have to say, ‘Where were you?’” She was booed by most of the audience. I applaud her for her honesty and her vote in favor of children.
One parent, referred to as “Miss Porter,” addressed the board in opposition and said, “We didn’t do better, because we didn’t know better.” She said they didn’t even know what “BESE” was. They directed their blame for ignorance of the accountability plan toward the BESE board and Pastorek. Behind Porter sat EBR school board member, Tarvald Smith, who glared at Pastorek and even rose to his feet in applause.
I found it ironic—and shameful—that Porter lives in Smith’s school board district and, according to Smith, attends his district meetings. But he was speechless when I asked him why she didn’t point the finger at him for not informing her? Shouldn’t her school board member be responsible for helping her “know better?” I asked him what he does at his district meetings. Again, he was speechless.
Advocate editorial writer Lanny Keller may have hit the nail on the head. He wrote in his column, “Many school board members are, as East Baton Rouge’s seem to be, creatures of the system. Their world is ‘the system’ and the schools it ‘owns.’ The state takeovers are implicit criticisms of that narrow world-view, which is why board members in Baton Rouge are angry.” In my opinion, the “system” is the problem. And they don’t “own” these schools—we do.
Maybe Roemer got to the root of this issue with the EBR school board and unions as he discussed their opposition on WJBO recently. He said, “What they’re running is a jobs program. They worry more about that than they do about the kids.” I hate to think that, but I have seen evidence to back it up. It’s sad.
I also had hoped that the new members on the school board would bring a new direction. One member, Jay Augustine, who I endorsed, said at the BESE meeting that the board now “embraces charters.” He told me in the lobby that night that it was a new day and we need to let go of the past. But the very next day, the board voted to defer a renewal of a lease to the 10-year-old Children’s Charter School, which has excelled with at-risk, minority children and has a waiting list. Wow, how things have “changed.”
I’m not sure this inspires much hope in the public about our chances for getting a dynamic, new superintendent, but that will be another defining moment for EBR schools and our future. Without the right choice, there will be more takeovers.