LESLIE JACOBS – AN APPRECIATION
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
It is too bad education reformer Leslie Jacobs dropped out of the mayor’s contest after Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu joined the line-up at the last minute. Maybe she was correct in giving herself zero chance of winning with him in the competition, but it would have been interesting to see how the electorate would have responded to her campaign.
After all, when push comes to shove, it could be argued that she’s done more for New Orleans than anyone else in the mayoral race. With school performance on the mend, it’s actually possible to imagine a future in which New Orleans’ public schools graduate students who can read, write and compute. Think what that would mean: Businesses might reconsider their reluctance to locate here and 18-year-olds could get real jobs. Wow, what a concept.
Jacobs’ short-lived television spots included the catchy and apropos phrase, “No excuses, only results.” I don’t know who in her campaign came up with that line, but it accurately captures Jacobs’ essence – a woman who keeps her focus on the bottom line.
In her case, the bottom line was student achievement, and after years of derision for her efforts, she’s been vindicated. The tough love program adopted by the state back in the late 1990s with her influence is paying off: A majority of New Orleans schools have the state’s stamp of approval today, compared to only about one-third in 2005.
That good news has not been lost on voters. More than one survey has shown that New Orleans voters recognize that public education has improved.
The Council for A Better Louisiana, for example, took a survey in the summer of 2008 because it had backed the state’s takeover of low-performing schools, and it wanted to know how voters viewed the new education landscape.
In that survey, 74 percent of survey takers said they wanted to continue changes to public education and not return to the pre-2005 system of traditional schools.
As far as I can remember, there hasn’t been a major candidate whose political experience came from the field of education. The major players typically come from the City Council, the state Legislature or other state elected offices and, in Mayor Nagin’s case, from business circles.
Even though she is a successful businesswoman, Jacobs’ primary political leverage, albeit still untested, is as a tough-minded education reformer who stood up to angry educators and parents in the early years of the state’s implementation of accountability.
Her political pedigree began when she was elected to the New Orleans Parish School Board in a majority black district. But when she realized what a snake pit she’d fallen into, she happily abandoned that office to accept former Gov. Foster’s appointment to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, an office from which she could actually make a difference.
As anyone who has ever been in Jacob’s presence knows, rocking the boat is her forte.
She was a key player in the adoption of the accountability program that led to the 2005 takeover of New Orleans’ “failing” schools and the charter school movement. That program included standardized LEAP testing to gauge students’ ability to read and compute at grade level.
The LEAP program requires students in fourth and eighth grades to be held back for extra help before moving on to the next level if they do not pass the standardized test. Predictably, many students were held back, and this result initially caused a great deal of anger. Jacobs says that the reforms and their proponents were labeled as racists. At one point emotions ran so high that a detractor spit on Jacobs for her role in the process.
The dismal outcome of those tests in the early years led to the state’s takeover of the majority of New Orleans’ schools after Katrina flooded many of them. Jacobs supported the takeover and actively pursued charter operators to come to New Orleans.
Today, dozens of successful charters have fueled national recognition of New Orleans’ educational transformation. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last year that Louisiana’s innovation makes it a leading candidate in getting part of $5 billion in grants that will be awarded this year to education reformers willing to break from the past.
Under normal conditions, membership to BESE wouldn’t be a ladder to the mayor’s office. But with New Orleans’ “failing” schools finally showing signs of life, Jacobs’ path to name-recognition is successful education reform. Of course, the word “successful” is under attack by the usual reform bashers, but no one can dispute the fact that test scores have improved significantly since the state has been keeping tabs on school performance.
Social promotion, the bane of good student performance, is on its way out in elementary and secondary schools as a result of efforts by Jacobs and others who refused to bend to public pressure.
Education has always been considered a major issue in New Orleans, but since the mayor has little control over what goes on in schools, educators have not been big players in mayoral elections. But Jacobs’ early television ads suggested that she intended to use the public’s recent recognition of educational improvements as a platform for proving that she would apply her proven moxie to the job of reforming City Hall.
Considering her background, she was unlikely to support the return of schools to the control of the NOSB, an issue that will come up for BESE debate this year. The CABL poll shows that a majority of voters do not want the schools returned to local control any time soon, but only time will tell if local officials, such as the next mayor, will pressure the state to give them back.
Ultimately, Jacobs says the governor’s position on returning schools to local control will take precedence over the mayor’s, no matter who is the ultimate winner.
“The mayor’s real focus,” she says, “must be getting the city functioning again.”