Louisiana Voters Will Decide Education’s Future

Louisiana voters haven’t always played a major role in the state’s public education system. However, that is about to change during the upcoming statewide elections.

Campaigns for seats on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education offer clear choices about the direction of public education over the next four years. BESE sets policy for the state’s public schools. Most candidates for the eight elected seats on the 11-member board fall into one of two categories — reformers or traditionalists.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has become the most powerful reformer, and he has endorsed six of the eight candidates in the Oct. 22 primary. He appoints three board members, and they are considered to be reformers as well.

Reformers question the value of teacher tenure, believe teacher evaluations should be linked to student performance, want principals to have more control over school budgets and think charter schools are a viable alternative to traditional public schools.

Traditionalists are supported by the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education. It was organized by teacher unions, local school boards and school superintendents. The coalition sees charter schools as an effort to undermine public education and don’t believe the local systems need the drastic changes being proposed by the reformers.

A look at the contested BESE race in this area is perhaps the best way to define the two camps. Dale Bayard, R-Sulphur, is a traditionalist, and he is seeking his fourth four-year term. Holly Boffy, R-Youngsville, a reformer, is challenging Bayard. She is a former Louisiana teacher of the year.

Bayard said during an interview with the American Press he intends, if re-elected, to combat efforts of private business interests that he said want to exercise more influence over state public education. He said he is uncomfortable about paying outside contractors and private businesses to provide state education services.

Boffy said her 10 years in the classroom give her an education perspective about what it takes to improve student performance. And she questions the value of teacher tenure. Charter schools also have a place in the education system, she said.

Jindal has endorsed Boffy, and she is expected to have the support of groups like the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. The Alliance for Better Classrooms is pushing education reform and said it would spend $1 million to help candidates who agree.

Bayard has been endorsed by the coalition. It believes charter schools are an effort to privatize local school systems.

Bayard was the lone dissenting vote when BESE decided 9-1 to approve the Lake Charles Charter Academy. However, he said he approves charter schools when they are needed in certain areas.

Charter schools are public schools that are more independently operated. With some exceptions, they have become an effective alternative to the failing public school system that existed in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

There were 90 charter schools operating in Louisiana during the 2010-11 school year, and 60 of those were in the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

A recent Stanford University analysis said about half of the RSD charter schools have made significant gains in improving reading and math scores.

One-fourth of them performed no better than traditional schools, and the remaining one-fourth still lagged far behind.

Those schools receive state operating funds through the Minimum Foundation Program, and that is another bone of contention with traditionalists.

They insist the loss of that money dilutes the effectiveness of the existing public school system.

A major goal of the reformers is to get the eight members on BESE it will take to appoint the next state superintendent of education. Paul Pastorek, who managed to alienate educators across the state, is gone, and Jindal wants John White to take his place. White is now superintendent of the Recovery School District.

The governor’s endorsement of BESE reform candidates and his $5,000 political contributions to each of them are unprecedented actions that demonstrate his determination to be a strong influence on where public education is headed.

BESE has approved charter schools when local school boards declined and a 6-5 majority has supported reform efforts that have been approved by the Legislature. So traditionalists who want to maintain the status quo and slow the reform effort know they are facing an uphill fight.

The final decision about the future course of the education reform effort will rest with voters during the Oct. 22 primary and the Nov. 19 general election.

Those who believe the current system is working well will side with Bayard and other traditionalists. Voters who think there is a better way and that the reform effort begun by BESE should continue will support Boffy and other reform candidates.

Don’t miss this rare opportunity to have your say about the future of public education in Louisiana.

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].

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