In a makeshift waiting room of the warehouse that serves as the headquarters for public schools, three young prospective teachers sit.
As superintendent, Paul Vallas could someday be their boss. As he passes through the room, he stops to shake hands. Then he tries to persuade them to teach someplace else.
He has more than enough teachers for the new school year, which began last week, he explains. Have they considered Baton Rouge?
“I know Baton Rouge doesn’t have the French Quarter,” he says. “That’s OK. It’s OK to be far from the French Quarter — keep you out of trouble.”
As Vallas begins his second and probably final year trying to rebuild the ailing public school system, he not only has more teachers than he needs. He has eye-popping funding, nearly unchecked administrative power and “a sea of goodwill” that stretches across the USA.
The biggest question isn’t whether he’ll be able to turn around the system, at least in the short term. It’s whether there’s anything standing in his way.
If Vallas succeeds, observers say, he’ll show that with a clean slate, extra cash and a few big ideas, a hard-charging reformer can fix an ailing system and create a template for other districts. If he doesn’t succeed, they worry, Americans’ faith in urban public schools could burn out for good.