Monday, June 09, 2008

"Buying Momentum"

Sarah Carr portrays a new perspective on Paul Vallas in her piece on the front cover of today's Times-Picayune.

For some time, mainstream media coverage of Mr. Vallas has been extremely charitable, ignoring oft repeated criticisms from prior Vallas stops.

This is the first article in the Times-Picayune that mentions Mr. Vallas' budget issues in Philadelphia.

This is the first time that the Times-Picayune raised the issue of unchecked power at the RSD.

In this article, the Times-Picayune alluded to collective criticism of Paul Vallas' spending habits.

I believe that this article is the most balanced piece on the RSD by the Times-Picayune that we've seen to date. I don't know what that means, but there it is.

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There are some issues I'd like to discuss further, excerpting from Sarah Carr:

A big talker, big thinker and big doer, he has also thus far proved a big spender. One afternoon, he describes one of his strategies here as "buying momentum."

Whether that momentum morphs into long-term stability remains the question at the core of his tenure -- one he freely admits was never designed to last, as he plans to leave New Orleans, most likely late next year.


I want to talk about this. I want to talk about Vallas' short-term decision to "buy momentum" for the RSD vs. the need for long-term stability in local public education. This is a good debate to have.

Paul Vallas' game plan has been to splash money into "deliverables." What I mean by that is that he has invested in things he can show to people: the classroom technology, the new teacher corps, the extended schedule, the academic programming contracts, the RSD technocracy.

I won't go too deeply into the merits of the individual spending initiatives. I'll say that I like some better than others. It's pretty tough to find fault in extending classroom hours. At the same time, I can't help but be suspicious of the classroom technology spending. Do we need Promethean boards in every classroom when students can't even read the newspaper? That seems like waste.

I bring up the "deliverables" to illustrate Vallas' established spending habits. He spends one-time money on one-time fixes. This was his pattern in Philadelphia as well. To me, this inherently flies in the face of long-term stability.

Here, he has plowed millions of dollars into his own professional staff, technologies, and programs. This is not bad in and of itself. He was charged with building the administrative capacity of the RSD and he has done that. Nobody disputes that he is a hard worker and he has indeed worked hard to build a brand new bureaucracy from scratch.

These things are touted as his proudest accomplishments over the last year. He took an empty institution from his predecessor, Robin Jarvis, and was able to provide the necessary energy to ensure that schools were open on time and hot meals were served. Whereas Robin Jarvis had a ineffectively small staff, Paul Vallas has built an entire organization. Mr. Vallas has created the first ever RSD budget after the bureaucracy had operated without proper accounting since the storm.

The discrepancy is long-term stability. And not just the stability of Mr. Vallas. He admits he is here for the short-term. I have no qualms with that and I prefer his honesty on that front. My questions relate to the RSD as an institution.

Does building up the administrative capacity of the RSD really do anything for long-term stability?

Right now, New Orleans public schools are controlled by either the RSD, the Orleans Parish School Board, or independent Charter operators. That's three bureaucracies.

The RSD was granted unprecedented control of schools previously under the authority of the OPSB after Katrina. The idea was to go over the heads of the local school board to cut through the democratic red tape. By circumventing that body, Paul Pastorak was able to hire Paul Vallas to come in and make changes to the schools without time-consuming checks and balances. This, in 2005, didn't necessarily look like a bad option, the OPSB didn't exactly have a positive track record in terms of getting things done quickly.

Vallas differs from any previous superintendent, here or nationally, in one key way: an unprecedented level of relatively unchecked power.

He doesn't report to the local elected School Board -- one with a history of blocking superintendents' reform attempts, excoriating them publicly and ousting them. Neither does Vallas have to contend with a teachers union, which lost collective bargaining rights in the state takeover. The flood and takeover further shattered central office fiefdoms run by entrenched bureaucrats.

Vallas reports directly to state Superintendent Paul Pastorek. "I like to pretend that I have all these obstacles," Vallas said. But he concedes that his office faces fewer constraints "than any district in the country."

But this has to be temporary, doesn't it? Is the state of Louisiana always going to control a third or more of this city's schools without giving New Orleans voters any power to control who administers them?

No.

Eventually, either the RSD is going to begin returning administration of public schools back to the municipality or there are going to be major changes made to the RSD or to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to make the administration of schools accountable to voters.

While the RSD's "benevolent dictatorship" model was tolerated due to the post-storm emergency, there is no way that that body is going to simply rule over our schools forever without any accountability to local voters or local politicians. It's not sustainable, it's not tolerable. I would be shocked to find anyone in Baton Rouge or New Orleans that would claim that's even the plan. Ultimately, the RSD and the OPSB are going to merge or otherwise the New Orleans public schools are going to be locally accountable - like every other school system in the country.

So then if the long-term vision for New Orleans public schools administration is to eventually have a unified school district, how does spending millions on building the administrative capacity of the temporary RSD provide for long-term stability of public school institutions?

It doesn't!

Instead of overruling the "central office fiefdoms run by entrenched bureaucrats" of the old OPSB to get things done, isn't the RSD merely entrenching their own bureaucratic fiefdom?

And isn't this fiefdom much more troubling than the ones created by the OPSB?

At least we get to elected the Orleans Parish School Board.

So what is Paul Vallas really "buying momentum" for?

Once we reunify the school district, won't we have rinse and repeat?

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Further notes:

1. When Paul Vallas or Paul Pastorak or the Times-Picayune touts gains in LEAP scores this year, it is important to note what years are being compared. This year's scores compared to last year's will artificially inflate LEAP gains because last year, the schools were still a major cleanup project. Progress is better measured against stable pre-Katrina school years.

2. I'm also noticing a new wrinkle to the RSD's much-debated 10 year master plan, as mentioned in Carr's RSD report card. "The plan, which may unveiled in August" had been slated to be released early this month.

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Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Upon stricter review, it is inaccurate to say that the Times Picayune has never mentioned Paul Vallas' budget deficit in Philadelphia or the lack of accountability at the RSD. This was, however, the first time that these issues were offered as prominent context for Vallas' administration.

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