Panel Offers Preview Of BESE Fireworks To Come

At a panel on elementary and secondary education reform at the Pelican Institute’s Policy Orientation for the Louisiana Legislature, fireworks lit off over the prospect of Recovery School District head John White taking over as the state’s new education superintendent.

The panelists, including Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members Chas Roemer and Penny Dastugue and state Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge), touted an agenda including reform of the state’s teacher tenure system, increasing school choice and transparency in evaluation of schools and teachers.

Roemer noted that between local, state and federal education dollars Louisiana spends just under $9 billion per year to educate around 700,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, a staggering figure which depending on how it’s calculated comes to between $12,500 and $14,000 per student – enough to fund tuition at all but the very most expensive private schools in the state.

And yet, Roemer said, there are 235,000 students of that 700,000 figure who perform below grade level. And Louisiana ranks among the nation’s worst states in high school graduation rate.

Roemer and Dastugue both touted the state’s new system of giving letter grades to schools which debuted this year. Dastugue noted that there were bills filed in the state legislature last year to do away with tenure for bus drivers and expects to see more of the same this year as efforts are made to rein in or eliminate teacher tenure.

Less than 1/2 of one percent of Louisiana’s teachers are fired for poor performance, in a state where outcomes rank among the worst in the country. Dastugue pointed to statistics which show that the damage done to a student’s educational attainment by a bad teacher is nearly permanent. Modification of tenure and compensating teachers for the pursuit of excellence is key to improvement, she said.

Roemer outlined a four-point strategy for improvement, first focusing on increasing competition both from charter schools and from increased use of tax credits or vouchers. He also touted the use of autonomy for teachers, principals and school districts tied to transparent performance evaluation standards. And he said that ultimately he’d like to see full school choice available to parents, a reform he believes will become permanent once it takes hold.

“As long as we give empowerment to parents, they’ll never accept losing it,” he said.

Roemer also stated that Louisiana has to stop writing off kids from poor backgrounds as uneducatable. “There’s a cancer in this state,” he said, “and that cancer is ‘Poor kids can’t learn.’ It’s nonsense, and it’s nauseating.” Roemer and Dastugue both said that part of the solution of dealing with children in disadvantaged backgrounds has to be the employment of educational entrepreneurs and a myriad of approaches. “We have a cookie-cutter approach in this state,” Roemer said, and noted that differences in educational needs even between his own children are readily apparent – much less all of Louisiana’s myriad disadvantaged kids.

Carter expressed optimism that because education reform is the top line on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s agenda for 2012, and because the bulk of Louisiana’s newly-elected state legislators appear to recognize that education is Louisiana’s top priority, there will be a great deal of momentum for a more market-based, accountable and ambitious educational system in Louisiana the state legislature will pursue in its 2012 regular session.

But a fly in the ointment surfaced when BESE member-elect Lottie Beebe stood to comment during the question-and-answer segment. Beebe launched into a somewhat rambling attack on White, the putative choice among BESE members to take over as the state’s next superintendent of education. Beebe, who acknowledged that she’s seen as a banner-holder for the state’s educational establishment, claimed she’s for reasonable reform – and then assailed White’s credentials and experience, while demanding a national search for his replacement.

Dastugue suggested those concerns might be best assuaged by meeting White, while Roemer said his primary desirable characteristics in a new superintendent were courage and leadership, and “I haven’t seen anybody who demonstrates those any better than John White does.”

Beebe and the state’s educational establishment have been hard at work to brand White as a controversial figure, but with BESE’s current large majority in favor of school choice and school reform – which White, a former Teach For America leader, symbolizes – it appears there will be a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing where it comes to opposition to his appointment.

As one insider remarked of Beebe’s statements after the panel, “We elected somebody to BESE who can’t count.”

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