Professor J. Celeste Lay was born in New Orleans, and at age 10, moved to Paducah, Kentucky. Her parents did not attend college, but nonetheless achieved what many would describe as the “American dream.” Her father was a towboat deckhand-turned-captain who later opened a business; her mother stayed home with four kids until she eventually taught herself computer programming in accounting and became the bookkeeper for the business.
Prof. Lay was born with an interest in politics. In second grade, she did a project on the media’s coverage of the presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. In 8th grade Latin class, she wrote a paper on the Roman Empire’s treatment of women and girls. And in high school, both President George H.W. Bush and candidate Bill Clinton made stops in her hometown, events for which she spread leaflets, waved signs, and argued about with her friends. Though she didn’t understand it then, her mother’s pushback against ridiculous authority provided some early political lessons. When the high school called to ask her to bring a change of clothes because of her daughter’s too-short skirt, Prof. Lay’s mom showed up with nothing, claiming that if the school believed she would let her daughter out of the house with something so inappropriate, how could she possibly pick out something acceptable. They went home, where Prof. Lay listened to her mother rail against “those idiots” for the rest of the day (for a Southern Baptist lady who never danced, played cards, or drank alcohol, “idiot” was pretty harsh). Note: Prof. Lay was never “dress coded” again.
After a brief stint as a biology major at the College of Charleston (her parents dreamed she’d be a real doctor), Prof. Lay quickly realized her passion was politics. Like seemingly all political science majors, she thought about law school. She worked for a lawyer and quickly realized that the typical day was nothing like “L.A. Law” or the O.J. trial. While in college, she spent a semester in Washington working for a member of the U.S. House. She got to attend a presidential inauguration and a State of the Union address; she met a Supreme Court justice; and, she got to stand behind the press secretary’s podium at the White House. She learned to give tours of the U.S. Capitol, where she regularly made up all sorts of things for the school groups she led around. This naturally led her to a career in academia.
She worked as a public policy intern/staff member for a non-profit in Washington after college, primarily because of the health and dental insurance it offered that could rarely be found in such jobs. She learned a great deal about international family planning, but she also learned she really doesn’t like having a boss. This also pointed her toward a career in academia.
Prof. Lay earned her Ph.D. in Government & Politics (not Political Science, which for some with too much time on their hands, is a meaningful distinction) from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2004. She started her academic career at Tulane University in the city of her birth and the school where her sister earned her degree from Newcomb College. After a brief stint in the Northeast, where she taught at Stonehill College and lived in Providence, Rhode Island, she moved back to New Orleans in 2008.
Because of her early interest in politics, she has always questioned why some young people are interested and others could not care less, and what leads so many young people to adopt their parents’ partisanship and other values and others to reject these beliefs. These interests led her to focus most of her work on the study of political socialization. Again, likely because of her upbringing in a small town where she never really fit in, her work has examined political socialization in small communities. She is currently part of a team of researchers looking at the gendered dynamics of political development. They have asked hundreds of children across the United States to “draw a political leader” and are currently examining this artwork.
She traces her interest in education politics to a college class. As a sophomore, she was assigned to read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities in a class on contemporary political issues. As a fairly conservative, sheltered girl from a small town, this book (and the hundreds she’s read since) opened her eyes to the dramatic inequalities in opportunity in U.S. society. Her current work focuses on what’s going on in New Orleans schools. Prof. Lay is particularly interested in the civic and political effects of the changes in governance. There is no U.S. experience with such a relatively powerless elected school board and over 40 private charter boards that govern many of the important aspects of public education. What does this system mean for citizens, for parents, and for support for public schools?