Some of the hottest political campaigns this fall will involve a state board most people know little about. In case you haven’t noticed, there is a serious effort under way to take control of public education in Louisiana.
Parents with school children would be wise to find out all they can about the candidates who will be running for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. They fall into two major groups — education reformers or traditionalists who are resisting change.
BESE governs the statewide operations of K-12 public, non-public and special schools and devises the formula by which the state’s schools are funded. It is through that board that the reformers and traditionalists hope to seize control.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has been the catalyst for the reformers, who have promoted changes in the way public schools are managed. As we have all learned by now, Jindal is a major promoter of privatization of many state operations.
The Council for a Better Louisiana, a non-partisan statewide organization, is also active in the education reform movement.
CABL said, “It’s all the more important because a coalition made up of the education establishment crowd is working to tilt things back to the comfort zone of the old status quo …”
Parents need more school choices, the organization said, and charter schools are one of those options. The rapid growth of the charter school movement since Jindal took office in 2008 is evidence of how much change the reformers have been able to bring about. The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools reports there were 90 charter schools operating in the state in the 2010-11 school year.
Here is how the association describes a charter school:
“Charter schools are independent public schools that are allowed to be more innovative and are held accountable for student achievement. They foster a partnership between parents, teachers and students to create an environment in which parents can be more involved, teachers are given freedom to innovate and students are provided the structure they need to learn.”
The 90 charters are a small fraction of the total number of public schools, but their numbers continue to grow.
The Lake Charles Charter Academy opened this year and its founders are already seeking approval for a second charter school in Calcasieu Parish. Parents turned out in large numbers to enroll their children.
We can expect charters to grow even more if the reformers add to their numbers during the fall statewide elections. Local school boards routinely reject charter applications, but their appeals to BESE have been successful.
BESE has 11 members. Eight are elected from single member districts and three are appointed by the governor. Most issues have been decided by BESE with 6-5 votes, and Jindal wants better odds for the reformers.
For starters, it takes eight votes to name the state superintendent of education. Jindal wants John White to have the job. He is superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans and an established reformer.
The governor’s effort to influence the election outcome was obvious Tuesday when he applauded the decision of Glenny Lee Buquet of Houma to seek re-election to BESE. Buquet had earlier announced plans not to seek another term.
“Glenny has been a leader for education reform in Louisiana for 20 years,” Jindal said.
Buquet talked about those fighting the reform movement, who she said want to “continue to do the same old thing and expect different results.” Leading that effort is the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education. It was organized by teacher unions, school board members and superintendents.
Don Whittinghill works for the coalition. He told The Advocate of Baton Rouge the Alliance for Better Classrooms that is pushing for reform wants to “turn public schools, built and operated with public tax dollars, into profit generators that mostly benefit a financial elite in the U.S.”
You can see how intense this control effort has become.
Let’s put this movement into perspective by looking at the BESE race that involves this corner of the state. Dale Bayard of Sulphur has represented the 7th District on the board for three four-year terms, and he has been an avid supporter of local school boards.
The 7th District includes Acadia, Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jeff Davis and parts of Lafayette, St. Landry and Vermilion parishes.
The odds are that many voters don’t know Bayard or much about BESE. It has never been a highprofile elected position until this year.
Bayard won his first term in 1999, defeating a Lake Charles candidate with 59 percent of the vote. He was unopposed in 2003 and won a 51-49 percent victory over a Lafayette opponent in 2007.
Holly Boffy of Youngsville, a reformer and Louisiana’s teacher of the year in 2010, has already qualified to run against Bayard. She opened her campaign with a bang by calling for an end to teacher tenure, which gives educators job security after three years on the job. Jindal is also backing her.
Most of the BESE districts will have similar campaigns.
Voters interested in the future of public education in Louisiana would be wise to soak up all the information they can about the candidates in the upcoming BESE races. Either you like the way public education has been managed in the past or you want to see the reform effort begun by Jindal and others continue. The choices will be clear.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].