The following column is representative of the writer’s opinion alone. The Hayride is not making an endorsement in the search for a superintendent. Joe Cunningham, the author of this piece, is a teacher, school choice advocate, and education reform advocate.
On Wednesday, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will vote on one of six candidates for our next superintendent of education.
Last week, we went over the state of play in that race, and where the board and John Bel Edwards stand on the issue. As of that writing, the top three candidates in the running were Jessica Baghian, Dr. Cade Brumley, and Lonnie Luce.
Of those three, it appears that John Bel Edwards’ allies have been pushing for either Dr. Brumley or Luce, because Baghian was the assistant superintendent under John White, the previous superintendent. Edwards is against her because he was against White, who has been one of the best advocates Louisiana could ask for when it comes to pushing for school choice and reforms that are student-centric, not teacher-centric (or, rather, union-centric).
But the obvious choice in this search is Baghian, because she will push for the same reforms that White himself was pushing. She, like White, is an advocate for school choice, student-centric reforms, and plans to continue the policies that White has been pushing at the Department of Education over the last eight years.
And, while White takes a lot of heat from the education community in Louisiana, it is hard to argue with the results. In 2019, the most recent complete set of data we have, Louisiana showed incredible growth in 8th grade reading and math, and made strides in 4th grade reading and math.
Looking across all four tests, here are the states that rose or fell the most in the (demographically adjusted) rankings between 2017 and 2019: pic.twitter.com/ZWYzeWT4Nn
— Matt Chingos (@chingos) October 30, 2019
On the high school side, we have been seeing higher scores on state testing and the ACT, as well.
Before announcing his resignation as superintendent, he was making moves to lead the Department of Education in better addressing gaps in lower grade levels. Baghian, as his top lieutenant in state education, is set to continue that work.
Louisiana needs the continuity right now. This school year ended in absolute chaos, and while there may be a gap in the data, the trends indicate that we have been on the right track leading up to this year. That will have to continue, especially given the gap that is likely to occur here, and Baghian is the right person to carry that legacy onward. Moreover, her role in the Department of Education has had her uniquely positioned to have a hand in shaping the policies already in place.
Further, in this time of pandemic-induced chaos, she would also have very little restructuring to do. The team is already in place, and the people who would be working with her to shape Louisiana’s education policies have been working on them already.
Of course, while continuity in these matters is key, so are the politics behind it. There are two very big reasons to be supportive of Baghian for the job. The first is a historic reason.
Louisiana has had two women serve as interim superintendent, but Baghian would be the first woman to be selected by BESE for the job. While gender should not matter in these affairs, many of the most vocal groups against Baghian are progressive groups who would in different times be demanding that a woman be considered for the job. This is a chance for Louisiana to break a longstanding tradition and pick a woman who has the experience needed to do the job.
And speaking of those progressive groups, when you have teachers unions (who look out more for themselves than the teachers they are supposed to represent) and the Louisiana School Board Association urging people to tell BESE not to vote for her, you’re making a pretty strong case in a conservative state that she is the right way to go.
On the LSBA, one mailer that went out to members urged them to call their BESE representative and tell them to only vote for someone with the “qualifications” necessary for the job. This is a jab at White, who was appointed by BESE and the qualifications waived, and Baghian, who would need the same waiver in order to serve as state superintendent. However, when you look at what Louisiana has achieved in the last eight years, wouldn’t you think that those “qualifications” might be a bit overstated?
While it’s understandable that you would want someone who has made their bones in the education system from the bottom up, aren’t the ability to research, follow data, and use both to guide policy actually abilities that aren’t limited to those with a specific level of administrative certification in education? We’ve seen time and again that good things come from those who can make information-driven decisions, regardless of how long they went to school to meet certain regulations. Baghian has done the work without them, and she would continue to do that good work as state superintendent.
It makes sense to pick Baghian, no matter how you look at it. The best thing for education in the state of Louisiana is continuity, and that is what her administration at the Department of Education will provide. It is imperative that BESE vote for Jessica Baghian on Wednesday when they vote.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column referred to a mailer sent out by the Louisiana State Bar Association. The mailer was actually sent out by the Louisiana School Board Association. The column has been updated with the correct information.