POLITICO PRO Q&A: Kim Hunter Reed, increased schooling commissioner for Louisiana
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How tough is it to overseas higher education in a state like Louisiana, where a minimum level of funding for the sector isn’t guaranteed?
Higher ed and health care in Louisiana are the two unprotected areas in the budget, as you’ve stated. So, thank you for reminding me of that stress. But let me say this — you’re not going to cut your way to prosperity. You have to invest in education. We’ve been trying to move our state forward and off the bottom of these ‘bad’ lists for so long. And if we’re not going to invest in our people and invest in education, we’re just not going to get there. We know, as you do, that an educated person is less likely to need healthcare, more likely to pay taxes, less likely to be incarcerated and less likely to need public benefits. Higher education is one of the best long-term investments you can make.
Last year, President Joe Biden signed a big infrastructure spending package into law. But the workforce development money needed to train people for those jobs is stalled in Congress. Are you worried about that disconnect?
We see this infrastructure funding as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in our state and in our people. That’s why our governor has proposed state funds to train workers. Absent a high-functioning federal government response, states will continue to find a way where we can because we must. We can’t wait for federal solutions. Sometimes we just have to do it ourselves, and then hope the federal government comes along with us at some point.
Can you tell me a little about your background and what attracted you to higher ed?
I come from a family of educators. My grandmother was a teacher who helped integrate a rural school in Louisiana. My mom was Head Start director. My dad was a teacher and a coach. He’s still living and just retired at the ripe age of 80
I grew up in this family where education was foundational. Addressing people’s needs through education was something that everybody celebrated and expected. I can also say I hit the parent lottery. It was never a question of would I go to college, rather what college would I go to. Never a question of would I be a public servant, but how would I serve and how would I make a difference.
I worked for Gov. Edwin Edwards, the rascal governor. And he was the one who told me I should go into higher education. He told me there were not that many women or women minorities in higher ed, and he thought I could make a difference. I did And I just loved it.
What challenges did you face as a woman, and as a Black woman, working in a space that is still heavily dominated by old white men?
It’s always challenging and interesting when you are the ‘only’ at the table. When I worked for the commissioner of higher education, he would turn to me in a room of men and say, “What do you think? What are your ideas?” That elevated my voice and gave me more confidence that I was where I needed to be and would be heard. I also got to work with two strong female leaders when I was coming up, and they nurtured, mentored and talked to me about expectations.
We talk about how kids can’t be what they can’t see. And I got to see women, minority women, at the table leading discussions and commanding respect. And I learned a lot, from all of them, about the importance of being a student of this work, always learning, always reading, always listening.
I’m sure there were moments along the way where being the ‘only’ wasn’t an opportunity, but instead a source of frustration. Does one memory stick out?
I certainly have been in rooms where people did not think I was the professional. They thought I was the support staff. Or I’ve certainly been in rooms as a professional, and a young professional, where people were talking over me, and I couldn’t elbow my way into the conversation, or people didn’t think I had an opinion or an opinion that mattered.
It is important for women, young women especially, to have that opportunity for someone to say, “Oh, I haven’t heard from you,” and the room stops. It’s sort of power dynamics, right? Especially if the person is a leader. It makes a difference when you have the highest-ranking person in the room say to the young professional, “Let’s hear what Kim has to say.” And as a result, I now try to do that.
How diverse were the schools you attended growing up?
I went to Catholic school, and I never had more than a handful of other African American students in my class. I’ve always grown up being in the minority. But it was never something that caused me to feel less than. It was just my reality. And so, we tried to make sure we supported each other. I remember my mom telling me when I was in kindergarten, I came home one day and told her, “Someone said that they wouldn’t play with me because I’m Black.” And she said, “No, they won’t play with you because you can read. You’re one of the few kids who can already read. You’re special.” Within two seconds, she had a response that affirmed my value and the value of education.
Shifting gears, I want to ask you about Biden’s pledge to make two years of community college free for all. That plan is on hold indefinitely. How is Louisiana responding?
Last session, we passed an adult ‘promise’ program, and the governor is fully funding it in his proposed budget this year. And that illustrates the difference between federal and state governments, right?
The federal government can just stop. States do not have the luxury of saying, “We can’t get it done.” We are where the rubber meets the road. And so if we know there’s no adult financial aid, for example, we have to find a way to advocate for it, pass it and fund it to help people move from poverty to prosperity. That is what has happened on this particular issue in Louisiana. Pre-Covid, almost 48 percent of our working adults had a high school diploma, or less, as their highest credential. So this is urgent for us.
A series of bomb threats have been called into historically Black colleges and universities, including some in Louisiana. How are colleges managing this on top of everything else on their plates?
It’s distressing to see the level of anxiety that these things cause. For me, it triggers thoughts of the little girls in the church. That’s immediately what I think about. Obviously, I know law enforcement is doing everything they can. I know our education leaders are doing everything they can to keep our students calm and safe. But again, there are just so many challenges, whether it’s racial tensions, whether it’s hurricanes, whether it’s Covid. There are so many significant distractions and challenges for our students to navigate. It’s why we have more mental health challenges now than we had pre-Covid.