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State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley reached the six-month mark on the job on Dec. 8.   

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, who just passed the six-month mark on the job, is winning praise even from some education groups that were less than enthusiastic about his selection.

Brumley's willingness to listen to a wide variety of views on often-contentious public school issues in the midst of a pandemic was cited by leaders of several organizations asked for an early assessment.

"He is very accessible," said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Brumley narrowly landed the job on May 20 on the third vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

He started on June 8, about three months into a pandemic that has played havoc with Louisiana's public school system and its roughly 720,000 students.

Brumley, former superintendent of the Jefferson Parish public school district, won the post amid concerns that he was too aligned with teachers unions, district superintendents and other traditional public school groups.

Critics said his selection could mean rollbacks for charter schools, teacher evaluations and other efforts to innovate that marked the eight years of former Superintendent John White.

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, was worried that, as a former district superintendent, Brumley would be lukewarm to charter schools seeking approval from BESE.

But Roemer took the unusual step on Dec. 15 of telling both Brumley and BESE publicly that her concerns were misplaced.

She said in an email Brumley is being "thoughtful and supportive" of charter school applications before BESE and has "brought a team that is very focused on students and doing what's best for those students."

Brigitte Nieland, director of government affairs of Stand For Children and a longtime advocate of public school changes, said she has not seen any bias toward traditional public school groups.

"It is not every superintendent that takes office and then has to deal with a pandemic," Nieland said. "I think he has handled it with leadership and calm."

Five weeks after Brumley started BESE approved sweeping, minimum safety standards for public schools that were recommended by the state Department of Education.

The agency set up a Back to School dashboard with data on in-person attendance, access to computers and other data.

Personal protective equipment and rapid testing kits were sent to all 69 school districts.

Nearly 3,000 educators underwent training on how to conduct virtual classes.

Brumley has advocated for in-person classes amid sporadic school shutdowns sparked by the coronavirus, and contact tracing rules.

Erwin's group has long backed sweeping changes in public schools, which often sparked fierce opposition from teacher unions, school board leaders and local superintendents. "I think he is making a very marked effort to reach out to various groups, on both sides and all across the spectrum," he said.

Erwin also said Brumley benefits from the fact that public education is not embroiled in the yearslong fights over Common Core, student testing and annual teacher evaluations that dominated much of White's tenure. 

Brumley won praise in Jefferson Parish for his ability to cobble together coalitions, including a 10-year property tax hike approved by voters in 2019 that boosted pay for teachers and other school employees by $29 million per year.

Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said her group often felt shut out of the department when White was superintendent. "The association is very pleased with the fact (Brumley) has been accessible to us," Mills said. 

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said Brumley benefits from having served as superintendent of an urban school district, Jefferson, as well as a rural system, the DeSoto Parish school district in northwest Louisiana.

Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, said Brumley has done a good job of bringing people together and inspiring educators.

Even with a new administration the state remains with public school problems that have gone on for decades.

In July Louisiana's public high school graduation, already one of the lowest in the nation, slipped from 81.4% for the Class of 2018 to 80.1% for the Class of 2019.

The latest ACT scores, which are supposed to measure college readiness, fell for the third consecutive year and are at the lowest level since 2013.

Brumley, in announcing a new push last month to improve dismal reading levels for students in kindergarten, first and second grades, noted the state is rated 47th and 48th for education achievement by Education Week magazine and U. S. News & World Report respectively.

"I am a native of Louisiana," Brumley said in an interview. "I have seen lists that we are 48th, 49th my entire life. I don't intend for us to stay there."

Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed is working with Brumley on a new plan to boost the number of high school seniors who earn associate degrees, which she called "meaningful change."

Debra Schum, a veteran educator and a member of the school board for the St. John the Baptist Parish School District, said Brumley's varied education background is a plus.

"He has been a teacher, school administrator, principal," said Schum, former executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals. "He has been a superintendent. He has made himself familiar with what actually has to happen to make change happen."

Brumley said he is trying to provide a steady hand during tumultuous times.

"I am not aware of any book I can read or individual I can speak to that has led through a global pandemic."


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.