APPEL: Let’s Face It, John Bel Edwards Is A Complete Fraud On Education

What was it that Governor Edwards said about education when he originally ran? It was something like “I will be good for education and, because I sleep with a teacher, you can trust me on that.” What we didn’t know then was what he meant was he would be good for teacher unions that supported his election and we could trust that he would be about adroitly following their direction on policy.

For the last couple of weeks, we have watched a steady replay of an Edwards’ re-election campaign ad bragging about what he has done for education in Louisiana. Objectively, if one cuts through the fog of political posturing, the ad really doesn’t say anything about helping children achieve better educational outcomes. Maybe that’s because the governor has no record of working to help kids succeed.

Let me make this clear, for twelve years I have been intimately involved in education reform at the state level and I can unequivocally say that Governor Edwards has been the least-engaged governor on education matters in recent history. Governors Foster, Blanco and Jindal all undertook serious education improvement and led the way on the implementation of desperately needed reforms.

Though his re-election ad makes claims of success, such success is illusory, as nothing has come from this governor’s administration. The ad is meaningful only for purely political reasons but, his history is prologue, should he achieve re-election it bodes badly for any education improvement.

Let’s start with what a good leader should do for a specific priority of government such as in education policy:

He should lead.

That’s seems simple enough but in order to lead one must demonstrate an interest in and a vision for that priority. Can anyone cite a single time during his term (except recently at election time) that Governor Edwards expressed even the slightest interest in or made even one proposal to improve education?

To be more specific, the most notable of Governor Edwards’ efforts, notably only at the end of his term, has been to implement a minor pay raise and to inject a nominal amount of funds into a system that, on a per student basis, was already one of the highest funded in the South; a system that until the education reforms of his predecessors had kicked in, was also the worst in the South.

His ad’s claims are metaphorically just as subsiding wetlands; when you look closely, they just sink under their own weight. The truth on teacher pay is the Legislature funded a pay raise for certified teachers in the 2013-14 budget year, a pay raise that Governor Edwards personally negotiated during Jindal’s term. Why would now he claim that the one this year was the first teacher raise in 10 years? I suppose it makes for better political talking points to take liberties with the truth and just blame Jindal.

Another inconvenient fact about the pay raise is that during this session Republicans attempted to substantially increase the pittance that he had offered teachers. But he rejected that proposal, saying that if teachers would help him get re-elected, he would get them more, a promise he has no control over. Let me be clear, teachers and support workers would have gotten a whole lot more pay if he hadn’t rejected Republican efforts, but then he wouldn’t have had a carrot to hang over teachers’ heads. Did anyone tell the teachers?

As to increasing funding for school districts, the fact is that school districts have seen state increases every year for the past decade. What many districts haven’t seen are more substantial increases that should have been raised by school boards from local taxpayers. Funny, I have never heard Governor Edwards addressing the importance that local voters should support their local schools and teachers with increased local taxes, especially since teachers are employees not of the state, but of those local school boards. In fact, outside of purely political events I have rarely if ever heard him speak at all to education as a priority for the state. Have you?

When compared to other southern states, for many years Louisiana had been the second-highest spending per student, though last in success. The governor brags now that he has given over $100 million per year to school boards to spend plus the teacher pay raise for their employees. But what he doesn’t tell you is that there are absolutely no expectations attached to that largesse. Since we already were one of the highest spending states and we always seem to be at the bottom in outcomes don’t you think that a reasonable leader would have demanded some performance improvements for all that new money? Or perhaps he would even ask why with nearly $8 billion per year that they spend we have not produced better results?

Not this governor, he just raises state taxes and buys political support by spreading the wealth to local politicians to spend no matter the outcomes. As I often say, he pays attention to grownup issues because grownups vote, kids don’t.

In 2012, then Governor Jindal proposed a real vision for our children and worked to implement it. That vision became at that time nationally recognized as the most impactful set of reforms in the US. Acts 1 and 2 of 2012 were the three fundamental elements of reform that were then and still are the underpinnings of good outcomes for students; accountability, high standards, and parental choice. ACT 3 was to implement a high-quality Early Childhood system, desperately needed especially by the poorest of our citizens.

One thing that can be said about Governor Edwards is that, without concern for the implications, he is loyal to those who supported his election campaign. In the case relating to education his allies are the school boards and teacher unions. The last things that these groups ever want to see succeed are accountability, high standards, or parental choice. As a result, their unrelenting efforts supported by the governor have clearly been to try to undo the Foster, Blanco and Jindal reforms. Success for them would manifest itself as a return to the bad old days for outcomes, but happy days for unions and politicians.

And they would have succeeded if not for the four-year stand taken by the Republican members of the House and Senate Education Committees and a slim majority of outcomes-minded BESE members that have kept this coterie from reversing the reforms. We have generally held our ground but unfortunately, the status quo folks have had some impact on slowing and watering the reforms down.

As to Early Childhood funding, during last year’s session the Senate Finance Committee on which I also served inserted $10 million into the budget to make a start at fully implementing our Early Childhood strategy. At the last minute and, so to speak, in the dark of the night, the governor swept that dedication from the budget for his use as a slush fund to pay for pet projects for his political pals. So much for caring about kids, especially poor kids.

During this session he did include a small amount in his budget for Early Childhood but we in the Senate recognized it as a base attempt to just create a re-election talking point and not enough to be a meaningful commitment to poor children. This time we were prepared for his tricks from last session and prevented any attempt at sweeping the money and we were able to substantially increase funding for Early Childhood.

It is for you, as a citizen of Louisiana, to decide if this governor deserves another opportunity to lead our state. In order to clear some of the re-election drivel about his record let me summarize my personal view of the totality of his history of education related activities during his first term;

He has proposed no vision, nor has he attempted to coordinate any reforms of education

He has proposed no meaningful legislation that would address poor outcomes

In the Legislature and at BESE he has supported efforts to roll back all the good work of the previous three governors. He has acceded to demands of his allies and has tried to fire what is our nationally recognized Superintendent of Education.

He increased funding to school boards but made no effort to link that or the other billions the state sends to school boards every year to any accountability or improvement in outcomes. Remember grownups vote, but kids don’t!

He has given only a nominal teacher pay raise but told teachers that if they help him get re-elected, he would get them more. Of course, he didn’t tell them that he has no power to do so.

He fought Republican efforts to grant substantially more in a pay raises for teachers and support personnel.

He stripped $10 million from Early Childhood spending last session to use to fund politically motivated projects.

He only included a very small sum in the budget for Early Childhood this session, an amount that the Legislature increased.

To the best of my recollection that was about it for John Bel Edwards’ interest in education matters. Oh, sure there were a bunch of photo ops and press releases but those amount to nothing except political face-time from which nothing meaningful occurs.

There are probably only a small handful of issues that are truly impactful for our people; education is at the top of that list. So, as I watch the steady drum beat of disingenuous claims made in his TV ad, I could not ignore the statements of a governor that has made promise after promise only to see them disappear into the swampy soil that is Louisiana politics. For four years we have seen at best a total absence on education issues and at worse a strong effort to return us to a system dominated by those who interests would keep us pent up as last in the nation.

As I see it, if the people of Louisiana truly want our state to give to our young people the gift of a 21st century education then we should not tolerate any more retrenchment. All the puffed-up TV ads in the world cannot undo the governor’s history of unrequited promises made to our people four years ago.

Remember his election motto, “People over politics.” Despite his best TV ad efforts to cover up a non-record on education advances, his first term history dictates that his motto must be inverted. “Politics over people” or more succinctly, “Politics for friends of JBE over children” would best describe his re-election campaign.

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