Wednesday, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education installed Jefferson Parish school Superintendent Cade Brumley as the state’s top education official, with the bare minimum of eight votes. This means Brumley will helm the Department of Education through 2023, subject to favorable annual evaluations by BESE.
In some fashion his rise to the post echoes his predecessor John White. Both were young at their commencement, had not spent a lot of time in the classroom, but had plenty of administrative experience.
There are a couple of key differences, which in large part defined the politics of Brumley’s selection. His administrative experience, with the exception of the last two years in Jefferson, was relatively parochial, starting as a principal, then becoming superintendent in DeSoto Parish. Prior to his taking the job in 2012, White had spent years in high-profile administrative roles, first in New York, then as head of Louisiana’s Recovery School District – as well as a stint outside of government as the head of Teach for America affiliates, the organization which prepared him for classroom teaching. To put it another way, White never had run a school or answered to a school board of elected officials, while Brumley until he became Jefferson’s leader (when he added charter schools to his portfolio and had a significant nonpublic school presence) had little experience with anything but traditional ways in education.
Also, Brumley’s career followed the most traditional of traditional paths – a bachelors education degree, teaching in a traditional school, principal of one, advanced education degrees, then onto his superintendent jobs. Unlike White, he never became a policy entrepreneur with visionary ideas of where to lead Louisiana education, but took a pragmatic tinkering view of policy implementation to get results within the larger framework that White and BESE provided.
That’s why Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards and his three BESE appointees so enthusiastically backed Brumley. They knew, with a solid majority of reformers on BESE, that nobody could win appointment who lobbied to turn back the clock on a successful series of reforms White, with legislative and BESE cooperation, had launched, changes which began with increased accountability of all of students, teachers, schools, and districts and then moved to more rigor, effort expended, and subject area expertise conveyed in instruction.
But at least they could get somebody in there who would lift the foot from the gas pedal, figuring Brumley with his very traditional background would. The person they didn’t want ascending to the job was Assistant Superintendent Jessica Baghian, whose background and links to education reform plus longtime association with White within the department they oversimply saw as cloning White on policy.
And Brumley has shown he’ll carry water for the education establishment troika of school boards, district superintendents, and unions. In his last year in DeSoto, he served as head of the lobbying arm for district chiefs, which reflexively opposed White, and carried their criticisms to him.
These interests convinced enough of the reform majority to back Brumley, and thus breaks the string of unambiguous reformers (excluding interim holders) on the job stretching back to Paul Pastorek’s term starting in 2007. No doubt this thrills Edwards, his education policy fellow travelers among elected Democrats, and the troika.
At the same time, Brumley didn’t get this far without having political skills, and so he must know this: nearly on a daily basis, Edwards’ influence fades a bit more, well before the end of his term (the latest sign: Edwards trying to bargain to reduce even a little extensive tort reform he appears unable to stop). Large Republican majorities in the legislature, who see no reason to change existing education policy, remain entrenched. Reform sentiments still have sway over the BESE majority – and when voters almost certainly elect a Republican governor in 2023 with the same, the existing three anti-reform appointees will flip to pro-reform replacements ready to offer a new four-year contract to a superintendent that fits their views.
Brumley could buck these dynamics and try to take the state backwards on education, which one might do if the next career step envisioned takes you to a larger state where anti-reform elements rule over such policy, with no certainty that ever could happen with the inertia he would face that would lead to much conflict and little in the way of results to impress outsiders. Much more likely, in order to leave any kind of imprint and make his career prospects brighter whether he seeks another four years in Louisiana, he’ll realize he needs to go with the flow.
Revanchist education forces in Louisiana may celebrate because the Brumley appointment means no more bold reform initiatives coming from that office. Yet neither should they expect any real backtracking from those initiatives already in place.