SADOW: Can A Reformer Win Louisiana’s Education Superintendent Job?

At least in one respect business as usual goes on with Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education: selecting a new permanent leader.

Recently, the Board proposed a slew of measures related to the closure of schools for a month by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards last week. Essentially, these dismantle all accountability measures for students, educators, schools, and districts. Ironically, this bow to reality for this academic year creates an environment close to what Edwards would want in regards to the issue of accountability, so he will issue the necessary proclamations with relish.

But Edwards, his teacher union allies, and many on the political left would like to see more than just a temporary acceptance of this agenda thrust upon the state by fate, and going beyond that begin with appointing a new state superintendent sympathetic to their views. Longtime superintendent John White – who very much supported an accountability agenda the opposite of Edwards and these others – exited last week, and BESE has begun the process of finding his replacement.

A solicitation to fill his shoes netted 21 applicants whose backgrounds would suggest they run the gamut on accountability – which depends upon views about student testing and teacher evaluations, rewards and punishments for school and district performances, and the degree of choice allowed to families in what kind of schools to attend and the financial support available to do it. To hire a superintendent, eight of the 11 BESE members must assent.

For that reason, it won’t select a reformer like White. Edwards’ reelection allowed him to name (actually reappoint in two cases) three members, and the rhetoric of newly elected District 8 member Democrat Preston Castille indicates these four won’t vote for someone akin to White.

However, the winning candidate likely will be closer to White that not in views. The current Board Pres. Sandy Holloway, a reformer, appointed a four-member committee of Kira Orange Jones, Jim Garvey, Ronnie Morris, and Doris Voitier to vet resumes and select finalists, helmed by Jones. Voitier is an Edwards pick, but the other three were elected on reformist credentials.

Having that in mind narrows the list of contestants considerably when also taking into account relevant experience. Current Asst. Superintendent Jessica Baghian served under White during his entire tenure overseeing most recently accountability. Jefferson Parish schools Superintendent Cade Brumley has acquired an impressive track record in a short period of time. Wayne Lewis, currently in academia, recently headed Kentucky’s schools with some of his reformist measures echoing White’s. Joe Siedlecki currently serves as an assistant commissioner in Texas’ education department and overseeing school system support and charter schools. Finally, Paul Vallas, White’s predecessor in running the state’s Recovery School District but who has spent the last several years working mostly out of Illnois and for the federal government, seeks a return to Louisiana.

Any of these candidates appear to have the relevant background to serve ably and harmony in viewpoint with the Board majority to gain as many as seven votes. The question is whether Castille or one of the Edwards appointees will submit to this. Picking up that eighth vote might favor homegrown candidates Baghian and Brumley.

But if the four want to hold out to prevent anyone with a whiff of reformist sensibilities from taking the job, that may mean having to trudge along with an interim superintendent, with the job currently held down by career department employee Beth Scioneaux. It all will depend on how obstructionist they wish to be.

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