Years from now, hopefully not very many years from now, thousands of young people will graduate from New Orleans public high schools and be ready for college. When that day comes, Paul Pastorek will know that the slings and arrows he endured as state superintendent of education were worth it.
He was always in it for the kids, right up to last Friday, May 13, his final day on the job.
Pastorek, a lawyer by training but, in the words of the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL), “a warrior for public education,” served on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for eight years before becoming superintendent in March 2007. At that time, the fledgling state Recovery School District (RSD), which had taken over more than 100 failing public schools in New Orleans, was not much better than the failed and corrupt Orleans Parish public schools system it had replaced.
Pastorek wasted no time grabbing the reins of leadership. He replaced the inept RSD superintendent and brought in Paul Vallas, a proven reformer who shared Pastorek’s passion for improving opportunities for children who had been written off by previous generations of “school leaders.”
Both Pastorek and Vallas had their critics, and in truth they brought on some of the criticism. Both men were impatient to the point of being blunt. Neither suffered fools — or politicians — gladly. But, on balance, the system needed someone willing to take his share of hits in order to shake loose decades of inertia.
In Louisiana, meaningful reform is like a revolution; it requires sacrifice and, metaphorically speaking, a certain amount of bloodshed. Pastorek showed time and again that he was willing to shed some of his own political blood if that’s what it took to move things forward.
The early results of his stewardship already prove him right:
• Before Hurricane Katrina, the vast majority of the city’s public schools were rated as “failing.” Today, only 18 percent of New Orleans public school students attend failing schools — a statistic that, despite the improvement, Pastorek still finds unacceptable.
• LEAP test scores are up significantly in Orleans Parish. The percentage of kids passing LEAP at the fourth grade level has jumped from 49 percent to 65 percent; in the eighth grade, from 44 percent to 58 percent.
• He encouraged the establishment of charter schools in New Orleans at record levels, making the city an international focal point for education reform. Numerous national journals have cited the turnaround in local public education. At the same time, he freely admits that charters are not a panacea; but they are a critical piece of a complex educational puzzle.
His departure presents a rare opportunity in Louisiana education. BESE members can search for someone who not only shares Pastorek’s passion and vision but also has the ability and drive to take his reforms to the next level. Or, those who oppose reform can seize the opportunity to retrench.
Everyone has a stake in this decision, even if you don’t have kids in public schools. Even if you don’t have kids at all. Katrina taught us that our fates are intertwined, that each of us has a stake in every neighborhood, every playground, every school, every kid.
As Louisiana's education superintendent, Paul Pastorek understood that and acted upon it. Let’s hope his successor does likewise.