The BESE Races In Perspective

The elections for members of tbe Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) are usually ho-hum affairs that do little to capture the attention of voters. Most individuals know little about the role BESE plays in K-12 education in Louisiana. The races for governor, lt. governor, the Legislature, and local offices such as mayor and sheriff are much more likely to focus voters’ attention.

The 2011 BESE elections, however, are getting a bit more scrutiny. Seven of the eight elected seats are being contested. The factor propelling the heightened interest is the two opposing camps that are fully engaged in these elections. One is the coalition of local school boards, superintendents, and employee unions. They feel threatened by reforms that have been enacted by BESE and the Legislature in the past decade. They want to return the system to the days when they were held less accountable for student’s achievement. The other camp is composed of education reformers who worked hard for years to bring better results and more accountability into K-12 public education.

One of the coalition partners in the reform camp consists of key elements in the business community. The strong business involvement has led some in the “old school” (pardon the pun) coalition to ascribe ulterior motives to business community involvement. Business’s motives aren’t ulterior at all. They are quite upfront. Without an educated workforce, most businesses can’t be competitive. Businesses in Louisiana are major stakeholders in the public education system. Their taxes pay a huge portion of the funding going into the system. They are supposed to hire the graduates (or dropouts) leaving the system. Yet many in the coalition consisting of the education bureaucracy and their friends in the employee unions seem to feel that business has no place in pushing reforms that would create more quality in the system.

Businesses are fueled by the concept of adding value to products and services. That is the underpinning of the free enterprise system. They would like to see the value-added concept work in education as well. That is accomplished by focusing scarce resources on enhanced quality and allowing competition to drive innovation. The anti-reform crowd bellows that education can’t be run like a business that is centered upon making a profit. The “profit” in an education enterprise is having a student leave a grade level with substantially more knowledge (“value-added”) than when he or she entered it. Successful businesses have a business model that continually evolves, focuses attention on quality control, and learns from its competition. Granted, schools aren’t businesses, but they can definitely learn from business models.

Perhaps the best example of success from a radical change in an education model occurred in the public schools in Orleans Parish after Hurricane Katrina. The system had to be totally rebuilt. Fortunately, the grip on power held by the employee unions and the school board that was inept and riddled with corruption was removed. A new model was fashioned. Competition entered the system fueled by the ability of parents to have some choice in which schools their children attended. Regulations were held to a minimum and central control of the system devolved, allowing innovation to bring about remarkable achievements in a short period of time.

The rebirth of the New Orleans public schools is a perfect symbol for what the current BESE elections are all about. Education progress isn’t centered on who gets contracts and how much of the financial resources go to the employees. It is about adding value to the lives of the students who enter and leave the system. Everyone who votes on October 22 should see which candidates are dedicated to putting the children first and making the system serve them, not the bureaucrats and the unions.

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