Ask an average citizen or a parent if they know Paul Pastorek has left his job as state superintendent of education, and the odds are most of them wouldn’t even know who he is. Ask an educator or school board member and most would say, “Goodbye and good riddance.”
Where Pastorek was concerned, there was no middle ground.
Reformers and good government groups thought he was the right man for the job at the right time. The educational establishment has little stomach for reform and jealously tried to protect its turf from Pastorek.
Legislators had mixed feelings about the man. Many promoted the education reforms the superintendent wanted. However, others didn’t like the fact he was paid $377,000 a year and refused to cater to their every whim.
Gov. Bobby Jindal supported Pastorek from the beginning, and can claim credit for much of the superintendent’s successes. You can get a lot done in Louisiana when our powerful governor is in your camp.
Cool under fire
I was amazed at how Pastorek could let blistering criticism of his goals and his methods roll off his back. Consider, for example, what he said when he announced he was leaving.
“I don’t consider it a divisive time,” he said.
Talk about an understatement! I can’t remember a more controversial four years in public education circles. But don’t let that detract from the positives.
What we shouldn’t overlook is the progress made during Pastorek’s tenure. Yes, there was a downside, and we will talk about that, too.
Jindal, newspapers and good government groups have pointed out some of the successes. More students are graduating and fewer are dropping out.
“Paul has been a bold reformer who has never wavered in his support for doing what’s best for Louisiana’s kids,” the governor said in a statement.
The Advocate of Baton Rouge in a Friday editorial said, “Whatever is said about Pastorek, no one has argued that he lacked passion for performance in public education …”
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans in an editorial the same day said before Hurricane Katrina in 2005 some two-thirds of the city’s public school students attended failing schools.
“… Now only 18 percent do,” the newspaper said. “The percentage of students passing the state’s highstakes LEAP tests has risen from 49 percent to 65 percent in fourth grade and from 44 percent to 58 percent in eighth grade.”
Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, told The Advocate, “A lot of folks that have their feathers ruffled were fairly content to leave things the way they are.”
Brigitte Nieland, a vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, told the newspaper, “I think that the state owes Mr. Pastorek a real debt of gratitude. He has moved us so far in the right direction, he has done the hard work.”
OK, now the downside.
Critics believed the fact Pastorek was an attorney with no classroom experience disqualified him from holding the superintendent’s job. They also disliked his preference for charter schools, which public school officials see as a threat to their survival.
“He was combative,” Walter Lee told The Times-Picayune. Lee is a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that hires the superintendent and sets policy for the state’s public schools. “I think that made it easy for people to dislike or disagree with him. We saw that with the Legislature, and we’ve seen it with local educators.”
Even Jindal agreed the next superintendent needs to do a better job of building a working relationship with all groups involved in public education.
“That is an important part of the job of the superintendent of education,” he said.
The Times-Picayune said, “To his critics, Pastorek — a lawyer with no classroom experience — was a bulldozer, an autocrat who often acted without bothering to get the input of veteran educators. And in the reform movement he championed, some see the abandonment of public education in favor of private management.”
Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, told the newspaper, “Paul has a strong will and a mind of his own. If we didn’t come to a consensus on his ideas, then he would typically not be very receptive to ours.”
Another controversy has erupted in the wake of Pastorek’s departure. Jindal wants John White to become interim state superintendent. White is the man Pastorek picked to run the Recovery School District that oversees low-performing schools.
Some of the same complaints about Pastorek are being used against White. A member of BESE said White isn’t even qualified to be a public school principal in Louisiana. BESE will make the call on whether or not White gets the nod.
The governor is determined to stick with his man, so here we go again.
One thing we know for certain. The education reform effort needs to continue. And the best way to ensure that is for all groups to consider the bottom line — what is best for Louisiana students and not their own self-interests.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].