The new 2015 in northwest Louisiana brought some interesting changes that may signal where state policy could be headed in this election year.
After 26th District Judge Jeff Thompson got himself elected unopposed, his vacated state representative slot was to have an election to fill it. Instead, none occurred there as well when only lawyer Mike Johnson qualified, after a former candidate for the same office in a different district Richey Jackson deferred. The Republican will have to run again later this year to retain the 8th District seat for a full term.
Johnson, a former radio talk show host and former dean of the law school proposed by Louisiana College that now faces uncertainty as to whether it actually will come into existence, is best known as a constitutional lawyer who has defended, often successfully, First Amendment religious-based claims. His abilities in this area and his socially conservative agenda should give opponents of these issue preferences heartburn, as he should prove to be an extremely effective advocate in the House for those.
But perhaps another upcoming election may end up of greater significance to state policy, in the area of education. With the conviction of former Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Walter Lee that led to his resignation, Gov. Bobby Jindal appointed Shreveport school principal Mary Harris to fill his slot until a Mar. 28 special election, which then would be followed in the fall with an election for the full term.
Unfortunately, it appears her stance on the Common Core States Initiative primarily snared her the job. The issue has become way overblown, with the concept’s detriments not nearly as potentially injurious as many panicked opponents conjure, and its merits oversold by many of its boisterous supporters. Far bigger things need addressing, such as keeping up the momentum of the beneficial 2012 reforms that promise to increase teacher quality and effectiveness, in dealing with pressing future concerns such as making adjustments to the teacher evaluation component and in revising school accountability measures, and in continuing with the expansion of school choice, among others.
Harris, who is considering trying for a full term, has given little indication of her feelings about these questions, other than she questions the evaluation procedure, which for the first time introduced objective measurement of teacher performance for teachers in many subject areas in its calculation of student progress. Her major complaint here, however, that teachers at her magnet school can show little in the way of student progress because the students generally are at an advanced level already, is a procedural rather than philosophical issue about the evaluation regime that can be rectified easily without affecting the larger concept.
If Harris does run, as in the case of any candidate, she’ll need to provide answers in all of these areas. If she does not show commitment to continued reform efforts that promote greater rigor in teaching, greater accountability from teachers and schools, and expansion of school choice, her stay on BESE should be limited to her three-month appointment.
Regardless, that election should serve as an interesting bellwether to the fall elections where all elected BESE members will stand. Should Harris run with strong opposition to Common Core the centerpiece of her campaign, or should any other opponent and/or any strongly in favor, that may signal what happens down the road seven months later in terms of that issue’s prominence and impact on the next BESE. This result also could influence legislators as some have pledged a strong effort to overturn the standards in this spring’s session. Thus, the eyes of the state will be on the special election for District 4 in a couple of months’ time.