Transforming Louisiana’s Education System: Interview With Paul Pastorek

Published February 11, 2010

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina closed more than 100 public schools and displaced approximately 118,000 students across Louisiana.

But the storm also brought reform: Under the leadership of Superintendent Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s burgeoning school choice movement is using transparency, standards, and accountability to improve student achievement and turn around low-performing schools. In January 2009, Education Week gave Louisiana an “A” grade in the category of “standards, assessment, and accountability.”

Lisa Snell: What path have you taken to reform education and make schools better in Louisiana?

Paul Pastorek: We’re really proceeding through two focused approaches. One is through the Recovery School District, taking chronically failed schools and radically restructuring them. The second is a broader approach to the remainder of the schools in the state. We have about 1,300 schools that are in our accountability system, and we have about 113 schools in 14 districts that are currently under the direct jurisdiction or indirect oversight of the Recovery School District, stretching across the state.

We have two different approaches to those schools. We have a complete takeover where we take the money and the building. The second approach—the supervisory memorandum of understanding (MOU)—lets the district keep the money and the building, but we assume a level of control over the direction of the school. These agreements give us some control around decisions such as the school leader, faculty, academic strategy, and the use of financial resources. And if the district fails to consider and react appropriately to address our concerns, then the school can be placed under the direct oversight of the Recovery School District.

Generally, with urban schools we’ve exercised the authority to place schools in the Recovery School District. And in rural areas, we’ve relied heavily on the supervisory MOUs—because you have to have a different strategy in the rural communities for a lot of different reasons. The politics, finances, and economies of scale are very different in rural areas, so we’re taking a different approach there as we attempt to transform these chronically low-performing schools. The biggest challenge I think that we have is that a large percentage of our students live in poverty. We haven’t given our teachers the kind of training they need to effectively teach these children.

We’re looking at transforming the entire Department of Education into a capacity-building and a human capital pipeline enterprise. On the one hand, we can work to build capacity, but on the other hand, we need to find people who are willing to go into these challenged schools. The Department of Education has historically been an enterprise that focuses on bureaucratic tasks, in allocating and administering funding, collecting reports—really just making sure everybody colors within the lines and keeps their head down while they’re coloring. If so many of our districts don’t really have the capacity to draw human capital into their schools, they’re going to constantly tell me what they have been telling me: “I’d like to get rid of these teachers, but I don’t have anybody to replace them.”

LS: Did you have to do some kind of personnel reform to allow districts to discharge non-performing teachers?

PP: In the Recovery School District, we are able to discharge the teachers, but the districts still have an obligation to retain them. So one of the real difficult parts of the Recovery School District that doesn’t work well is how we can deal with the teacher who is performing so poorly that we don’t want to hire them into the new school. We actually have a district right now that would like to convert all of its schools to charter schools. The problem is we can’t figure out how we’re going to deal with those teachers. So we have a fundamental flaw we’ve got to work through, and it’s going to require some legislation.

LS: What role are charter schools playing in Louisiana and in New Orleans?

PP: Up until this legislative session, there was a limit on the number of charters that could operate in the state outside the Recovery School District. There were also some financial restraints. But we’ve eliminated the cap and we’ve eliminated the financial restraints, so now charter schools can proliferate more in the external environment. Within the Recovery School District, we’re unlimited. We’re unlimited by finances and we’re unlimited by numbers, so what you’ve seen is a strong preference from the perspective of the Recovery School District, which the state controls, to convert those schools to charter schools. And the reason is fairly obvious. I think one of the interesting features of charter schools in New Orleans is that we’ve created an incubator for charter schools. And we’ve actually replicated that model and launched an incubator in Baton Rouge. This ensures that we aren’t putting all our eggs into the national charter operator basket. We want to bring in small operators. We want to offer real opportunity for creativity and innovation, and so we’re trying to cultivate a charter landscape that involves a healthy mix of experienced charter providers as well as people who don’t have experience or a track record operating charters.

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) is director of education at the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in Los Angeles. This interview was originally featured in Reason’s Innovators in Action 2009. Used with permission.