SADOW: Kostelka Wants To Make The School Superintendent An Elected Position

Why not? If you’re a Louisiana legislator and have a grudge, why not salve that bruised ego by trying to foist on the state a proven bad idea?

That appears to be the motivation and agenda by state Sen. Bob Kostelka with his introduction of SB 41 that would make the state superintendent of schools an elective position, as it had been prior to 1988. This would be in addition to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which currently chooses this officer, eight of whose members are elected from single-member districts and another three appointed by the governor.

Kostelka has managed to get himself on the outs with the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration, which has led to his demotion in the Senate’s power hierarchy such as being stripped of a committee chairmanship, by steadfastly refusing to go along with most of Jindal’s reform agenda. This includes in education, where Jindal and most of the elected members of BESE agree on policy.

While the Republican won’t publicly admit this bill is an attempt to strike back at Jindal and Republican Senate leaders for marginalizing him, the octogenarian does admit that he dislikes the reform agenda in education being carried out, with the blessing of BESE, by Superintendent John White. This constitutional amendment, converting the office into elective in nature beginning in 2016 with contests during the regular state cycle, can be construed as an attempt to force White out of office and to empower anti-reform special interests, enabling them more easily to concentrate efforts on one office to check BESE rather than having to spend more resources capturing BESE majorities.

With a curious mix of ignorance and illogic, Kostelka defends the proposal by arguing it would make for a schools chief “answerable to the people, not a rubber-stamped BESE board” – apparently forgetful or ignorant that most of BESE’s members already are elected and therefore answerable to the people. He also blames White for legislation currently challenged in the courts – even though it was his own Legislature that passed them, where he voted against the two most prominent parts to reform efforts, which he surely should recall.

He also claims as a strength of the proposal, which requires the voting public’s majority, that it allows for more democratic choice. But despite his more than four decades of service in elective office, he seems to have forgotten the policy-making mess previously under a similar arrangement.

For decades, until the end of 1987, Louisiana limped along with both an elected state school board and elected state superintendent, leading to a period rife with conflict and political intrigue. When the elected chief’s position did not serve as a point of contention between the Long family cabal and their opponents, it served as an attempted launching pad for other offices and repository of inefficient patronage jobs. It also featured constant bickering with the board, and was held for nearly a half-century by two individuals who did their level best to preserve segregation to the bitter end.

As if history didn’t show the undesirability of this model, current practice would not recommend it. Only a dozen states now have an elected schools chief (two having recently gotten ridden of theirs in favor of an appointed official), and of them, only Wisconsin does not have an appointive state school board parallel to this office, because it has no board. In most instances the chief serves on the board in some capacity. No states with the elected chief have any popularly-elected members of a board. These states that persist with an elective official recognize the chaos that results by having education policy fragmented between elective entities.

Were Kostelka serious about this, the amendment would either get rid of BESE altogether or make it an appointive board by any or all of the governor, Legislature, or school districts as is done in other states. Otherwise, he proposes an unworkable model that needlessly introduces conflicts and escalating costs.

The Legislature should not indulge this fit of pique by letting a bad idea go to a statewide vote. It and the state’s people have much more important and useful matters that deserve their attention.



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