With the Louisiana Democrat Party essentially sitting out all the statewide races in the 2011 election cycle, there really aren’t that many opportunities for the voting public to make clear policy choices this year with a real effect on our future.
The big exception? Eight races for elected seats to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, in which Louisiana’s voters will choose whether Louisiana will continue its status quo or move toward a completely new model of education delivery based on choice and markets.
There are three appointed BESE seats that Gov. Bobby Jindal directly controls, and with that trio he currently has a 6-to-5 majority on the BESE board. But to appoint an education superintendent on a permanent basis to succeed Paul Pastorek Jindal needs a supermajority, and that means he needs eight BESE members committed to his school choice agenda.
Jindal has allies in this fight, most notably business groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and one of its more prominent members, Cajun Industries founder and CEO Lane Grigsby – who has started a political action committee called Alliance for Better Classrooms. Those allies have contributed heavily to BESE candidates who have signed on to a reform agenda, and the battle lines have thus been clearly drawn.
And with the resulting attention that money has generated, the BESE races have exposed something to the public it hasn’t really been privy to – namely, the agenda of Louisiana’s educational establishment, and how problematic it really is in light of decades of terrible performance.
Kevin Mooney, writing at the Pelican Post, offered a must-read piece on the BESE issue yesterday which fleshed out the message of the state’s educational establishment and its opposition to charter schools favored by the reform movement. We’ll be cribbing heavily from that piece here, because Mooney’s sources offered up very clear definitions of the debate from both sides. It’s rare in politics to see such honest statements of position – and discerning voters will see a real choice of direction.
Quite simply, the state’s educational establishment, as it adheres to candidates in the BESE races, fears and loathes the market as an alternative to the current way of doing things. Here’s a quote from Dr. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), one of Louisiana’s two teachers’ unions…
“Here is where I get into a real heavy debate with the conservative viewpoint,” Walker-Jones said. “If you look at education strictly from the viewpoint of economics, I think you lose the art and craft and science of the practice. If we believe that the capitalism overrides everything else then we are missing out on the complexity that goes into an effective education.”
“Our schools are not a business, they are public trusts, and if we operate them like a business then I think this destroys the whole democratic underpinning of what it is that we have schools for in the first place. They are here to train and teach citizens to be critical thinkers and part of the intelligent decision making and democratic structure of this country.”
LAE is one of the main players in the Coalition for Public Education, a group whose membership is a virtual alphabet soup of the state’s educational establishment including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the organization representing the retired teachers. Also represented are organizations made up of superintendents, special ed administrators, school personnel administrators, child welfare and attendance personnel, and school boards.
In other words, the establishment.
A perusal of CPE’s Facebook page yields a treasure trove of links (here’s one) which indicate a very left-of-center orientation and a resistance to any kind of meaningful change. More on that in a minute, but first, we return to Walker-Jones’ statement accusing the reform movement of attempting to profit from Louisiana’s education.
One wonders whether the teachers’ union boss would make the same sort of statement about other service industries like the restaurant business, for example, or wireless communications or the internet – where competition, freedom of choice and the profit motive have driven technological innovation, diversity of offerings and improvement of delivery at a dizzying pace, with significant contributions to the American standard of living. Would Walker-Jones suggest there is no art and craft and science at Ruth’s Chris Steak House or in his iPhone? Would he suggest that the 44 percent of Louisiana public schools rated “D” or “F” in the latest survey conform to such a standard of excellence?
The demonization of the profit motive as somehow wasteful and counterproductive isn’t limited to Walker-Jones. It pervades some of the BESE candidates his organization has supported for election.
One such candidate is Lee Barrios, who is running against conservative reformer Jim Garvey in BESE District 1. Barrios told Mooney she opposes charter schools because they’re all about making a buck off the kids…
Lee Barrios, a retired middle school teacher from Abita Springs, and a candidate for the BESE seat in District 1, is ardently opposed to an expansion of the charter school system. The “capitalist theory” standing behind privatization efforts undermines a quality education, she argues.
“There are some high performing charter schools,” Barrios acknowledged. “But there is very little accountability and some have done very poorly. The privatization that [Gov.] Jindal has planned goes too far. I’m dead set against expanding charters, they’ve been expanded too much already. There is a capitalist theory that says there is money to be made in schools, but that’s wrong. Public schools are not set up for the purpose of making a profit, they are a different kind of animal.”
But Mooney’s piece tackles this issue and finds that the examples of profit-seeking – which he doesn’t assess as positive or negative, a discussion worth having in itself – in the charter school movement are few and far between. In fact, almost all of the operators of charter schools are non-profits.
Garvey said Louisiana residents should be encouraged by the progress charter schools have made in just a short period of time. He also points out that the overwhelming majority of charters are operated by non-profit organizations.
“The argument about a profit motive is bogus,” he said. “Who exactly is making money here? When you look at the charter school boards, and the organizations running the schools, they are almost all non-profits.”
There are only eight charter schools out of 101 that have contracted with for-profit groups, according to LABI. But instead of fixating on whether or not a particular organization is non-profit, or for-profit, education officials should look the results charters are delivering, Garvey argued.
“The place where charter schools have had the biggest impact is in turning around failing schools and that’s what we see in New Orleans,” he said. “We have seen real gains in school performance scores and they compare favorably with the rest of the state. If the charters are producing good results why should anyone be concerned if a small percentage are operated by for-profit companies. We should care more about the results we are getting for our children. If they [the charters] don’t get results, BESE will shut them down, and BESE has.”
Indeed. Mooney also has a great argument from LABI’s Brigitte Neiland on the profit/non-profit issue…
“It is a fallacy to say there is no profit in public education,” she pointed out. “The current system cuts too much money out of the classroom. Tell the school boards they can no longer do contracts and we’ll see if they put their money where their mouth is.”
Most school boards are the largest employers in their parish and most have budgets that are larger than the city or municipal budget, Nieland explained. The boards purchase and contract out for many items including capital construction, textbooks, vehicles and improvements to the buying and selling of land.
“To say there is no flexible money which equals a profit in public education is not true,” she continued. “If there was no profit in the system, all of the money would be going into the classroom, and no district would have a central office building. The superintendents are paid as well as CEOs, and have benefits that rival or exceed the private sector.”
It’s certainly true that school board contracting can be lucrative. Earlier this week the Louisiana Republican Party hit Democrat Sen. Ben Nevers, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, over disclosures that Nevers’ company made well over $400,000 in contracts with the St. Tammany and Washington Parish school boards. One assumes those contracts contained a healthy profit.
Interestingly enough, the Coalition for Public Education organized to support establishment candidates in BESE races was the brainchild of Jack Loup, chairman of the St. Tammany Parish School Board and a rather frequent opponent of groups seeking transparency and school reform. He’s also been caught misrepresenting figures on resource allocation to charter schools in New Orleans, in an attempt to make it look like the state is plowing money into charter schools above and beyond what traditional schools get – something which just isn’t true.
But fundamentally, it’s quite clear that the education establishment believes private companies, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, would ruin education delivery. They simply don’t want the competition and innovation new players in the market would bring, and they don’t want the accountability, either.
Neiland summed it up pretty well.
“We are talking about a union-led coalition that does not like to be described as union-led, that gets paid by the taxpayers to work on public time and to work against the interests of taxpayers,” she said. “That irony can only exist in public education.”
She also outlined another reason why the establishment hates charter schools…
“Charter schools are best described as public schools with an additional layer of accountability,” she observed. “They have to perform in a five year period, and if they don’t they are shut down. BESE has shut down charter schools that are not working. How many other public schools get shut down when they are not working?”
“There is a model still in place for public education that has not worked in decades,” she said. “Isn’t it terrible that we are now offering more choice to parents and students, instead of letting the education bureaucrats exercise total control.”
The battle between the school reformers and the Coalition for Public Education is playing out statewide. Besides the battle for District 1, in which Garvey is opposing not just Barrios but former Shell Oil executive Sharon Lee Hewitt, both of whom have received establishment endorsements after Loup and St. Tammany school board vice president (and frequent CPE Facebook page contributor Mary K. Bellisario) unsuccessfully attempted to nudge Barrios out of the race, there are races everywhere.
In District 2, which is a majority-black district centered in Orleans Parish, the incumbent Louella Givens appears headed for defeat at the hands of fellow Democrat Kira Orange Jones, a reform advocate. Orange Jones is a product of Teach For America, a non-profit group which inserts highly-trained teachers into urban schools – she’s originally from the Bronx, has a master’s degree in education from Harvard and came to Louisiana as a TFA 4th-grade teacher. TFA is an organization which spawned controversial education superstar Michelle Rhee, whose reform program in the Washington, D.C. schools was beaten back by the teachers’ unions, and New Orleans’ Recovery School District head John White – the prospective state education superintendent the education establishment is hell-bent on keeping out of the job. Givens comes into the race in rather bad shape seeing as though she has a DWI arrest in the past year and a $1.3 million IRS tax lien on property she owns, but more than that she’s in bad shape where fundraising is concerned. Orange Jones’ campaign has taken in over $100,000 and had over $75,000 on hand less than a week ago, while Givens had raised only $11,000.
District 3, based in Houma, is already friendly territory for the reformers. Current BESE member Glenny Lee Buquet is being challenged by Lottie Beebe, a school administrator in St. Martin Parish who is unquestionably a member of the state’s educational establishment. Beebe is a member of the Louisiana Association of School Executives and currently serves as the president of the Louisiana Association of School Personnel Administrators – both organizations are members of the Coalition for Public Education. Buquet had initially said she wasn’t going to run again but Jindal talked her into another term. She’s been a thorn in the side of the establishment for 20 years and Beebe was a great hope of their turning a district. Beebe and Buquet both claimed war chests in the $40,000 range in most recent disclosure forms.
In District 4, covering the northwestern part of the state, establishment-supported incumbent Walter Lee drew no opposition. But in Monroe-based District 5, establishment-supported incumbent Keith Guice, a longtime school administrator, is being challenged by Ruston engineer Jay Guillot – backed by the school reform movement. Guillot had a 3-to-1 advantage over Guice in cash on hand in the last disclosures and an endorsement from Jindal, LABI and the Louisiana Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group.
In Baton Rouge-based District 6, Jindal ally and reformer Chas Roemer (son of the former governor and current presidential candidate), an outspoken critic of the establishment who suggested closing the state Department of Education outright and reopening it with a completely different business model and also eliminating teacher tenure in public schools, is running for re-election against Donald Songy, a former principal and superintendent of schools in Ascension Parish. The race has gotten ugly, with Roemer’s campaign Facebook page getting hacked and Songy griping about a TV ad Roemer cut which blasted the 44 percent of the schools in the state rated as failing…
Roemer has a 10-to-1 fundraising advantage over Songy and it’s unlikely the race will be a particularly hotly-contested one.
District 7, based in southwest Louisiana, is a different story. It’s actually a Republican-vs.-Republican battle, with incumbent Dale Bayard holding the endorsement of the teachers’ unions and challenger Holly Boffy, the 2010 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, emerging as a star of the reform movement after calling for an end to teacher tenure. That momentum has resulted in Boffy reeling in over $100,000 in campaign contributions, much of it coming courtesy of the state GOP. Bayard, whose claim to fame largely came from his affiliation with the Louisiana Family Forum due to a friendly attitude toward the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, is taking hacks from Grigsby’s ABC PAC in the form of a brutal, if humorous, TV ad referencing his voting with “New Orleans liberals.” The ad was controversial enough that the Boffy camp disavowed it and asked ABC not to run it anymore. ABC isn’t pulling it.
And in District 8, which snakes its way around Baton Rouge from the river parishes to St. Helena Parish and into Avoyelles and points west, the Coalition for Public Education has endorsed a pair of Democrats – Jim Guillory and Domoine Rutledge. The incumbent, Linda Johnson of Plaquemine, has retired. Jindal hasn’t made an endorsement in the race, but Carolyn Hill is considered the reform candidate.
Ninety-two percent of Louisiana voters favor rewarding schools that grow academically. The survey also found a strong interest (91 percent) in holding local school boards more accountable for the academic achievement of the students in their districts. A 90 percent majority of voters believed that school districts should be able to dismiss teachers who are persistently ineffective.
The study also included a finding that 67 percent of Louisianans favor charter schools, and 56 percent want to see more of them.
But the real study will come on Saturday, when the voters will decide whether school choice and teacher accountability will become the vogue in Louisiana or whether they agree that education should remain divorced from market forces.