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Real change, not new positions, needed in LA schools

Louisiana’s Department of Education passed out another golden parachute to a state legislator, the beneficiary this time being former state Rep. Don Trahan who becomes the second glad-hander in a new position with responsibility to communicate to business and public interest groups. Earlier this year, former House Speaker Joe Salter got a similar gig at similar six-figure salary to press the flesh with policy-makers as the organization’s chief lobbyist.

This is not to question Trahan’s acceptance of the job as offered as his legislative record indicates he is knowledgeable and sensible concerning the field of elementary and secondary education. (And whether a vetoed pay raise for legislators would have kept him in the elective job is questionable – to his credit Trahan voted against it.) He appears to be a good communicator as well, as those who observed his running of House Education Committee meetings in his sole year of serving as it chairman would have noted.

What is questionable is the personnel and spending on them priorities of the Superintendant of the Department, Paul Pastorek, who has a penchant for throwing around big salaries for him and others on the political inside. He basically gave the Legislature’s joint budget committee the Bronx salute when he said if they did not give him a huge pay increase (which he already had been getting prior to legislative approval) over his predecessor that he’d take a hike. (Pastorek had served eight years on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, his employer, on whom four members still sit who served with him, and was hired without any kind of national or public search.)

Trahan’s new job sounds like exactly the kind of thing that Pastorek himself should be doing. Of course, one of Pastorek’s justifications for compensation that could reach nearly $450,000 annually by 2011 (for example, nearly 250 percent higher than his Texas counterpart who controls a budget over six times Louisiana’s and over four times the number of schools) was that he was overstretched in his job, so perhaps now his salary should be reduced since he’s got this new help. (Actually, there’s already a Director of Communications in Pastorek’s executive office, so why is the new position even needed?)

Meanwhile, state test scores continue to muddle along with, after a period of no improvement, elementary scores as a whole slightly increasing but secondary scores declining. (Part of Trahan’s new job is to act as liaison with business and public interests on the High School ReDesign project which is purported to address lack of progress in high school improvement defined as fewer dropouts and more-learned graduates.) And neither Pastorek nor Trahan, both of whom have supported throwing money at teachers in the odd belief that a higher salary suddenly will make them better, ever have advocated the single most effective tool that would improve educational quality in the state, periodic and rigorous testing of teachers for their subject knowledge with those who fail after remediation losing their reaching licenses in the state.

Why is it with generally fewer students and schools yet higher education spending per capita that Louisiana education is near the bottom in achievement? Hiring more state legislators who presided over this dubious era isn’t going to change this situation.

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