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Reformers seek to complete BESE job of 4 years ago

After qualification for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s fall elections settled, it has become clear that momentum generated four years ago by one side has continued to grow, while the other only now has recognized and responded to the threat to its power and privilege by this development.

Prior to four years ago, BESE had hunkered down to a business-as-usual approach in education policy-making, after the previous decade when significant advances had been made in the areas of school accountability and some raising of standards and expectations. About the only significant change along those lines had been, courtesy of the disruption wrought by Hurricane Katrina, large numbers of charter schools getting a foothold in Orleans Parish where the local school board, whose schools had been among the worst in the nation, had control of most schools taken by the state’s Recovery School District.

But besides that historical accident, on BESE there was a lack of enthusiasm for meaningful efforts to improve education statewide beyond where it was.
Yet a handful of reform-minded thinkers in 2007 looked ahead for elections to begin to leverage BESE into a more aggressive reform posture. Realizing the impending win of soon-to-be Gov. Bobby Jindal would produce three votes on BESE for continued reform, his appointees, they realized that given the numbers at the time if they could pick up just one seat, with two being open, they could have a working majority for reform. To that point, a recruiting effort run on next to no resources found candidates for those seats and to challenge most other establishment candidates.

With the pair of open spots, they almost got the Fifth District when Ruth Ulrich led Keith Guice into the runoff, but the establishment-backed Guice triumphed there. However, that would have served as icing on the cake because reformers won the other without an effort, when in the Sixth Chas Roemer won unopposed. Where reform interests had little money available, they were fortunate to get the Roemer name and the votes it would draw attached to someone who subsequently would turn out to be the boldest reformer on BESE.

That extra vote made the difference as in the past four years BESE has cranked up the reform pace. It raised standards, more aggressively removed underperforming schools from inept local administration, supported the Legislature and Jindal in removing caps on the number of charter schools allowed and in starting a semi-voucher program in Orleans, and hired a former BESE member committed to reform, Paul Pastorek, as superintendent. As these moves challenged the education establishment, demanding more work from it in order for it to hang on to resources, it began to plan to fight back on the election field of battle.

Reform supporters, however, did not sit still. Several high profile individuals, including Ulrich, formed the Alliance for Better Classrooms to raise money and support reform candidates this time around. Jindal helped encourage one reform member, District Three’s Glenny Lee Buquet, to run for another term after initial hesitation, and Roemer, after vacillating, decided to run again despite being made the biggest target by the establishment that loathes him – perhaps encouraged by one ABC leader, his father. And, reform supporters did their homework to find quality challengers to establishment incumbents, save one.

That was District Four’s Walter Lee, the only member running unopposed – still, even there the threat might have changed his behavior. Having faced a spirited challenge four years ago, Lee left nothing to chance as he switched party affiliation to Republican after a lifetime as a Democrat and announced he would support John White as the next state superintendent of education. Besides interest solidifying their majority, many reformers have rallied around White, head of the RSD for a few months, and view an increase to that majority by at least one as an opportunity to get White in the job, as it takes eight of the 11 votes to pick a permanent superintendent.

Naturally, moving to expand the field of play has got establishment interests nervous, who have formed their own interest group in response to lobby for its candidates. Says one of its movers, Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, this assertiveness is “polarizing” and could make for “a very difficult four years.” Translated, he’s wrong and right, respectively: the establishment long ago began polarizing the educational debate by falsely ascribing sinister motives to reformers and declaring itself the only arbiter of what constitutes quality education, and that it will be a difficult period ahead – for the establishment.

Its cause got no help when it turned out another mover to counter reform efforts, Louisiana School Board Association Director Nolton Senegal, who famously on behalf of that organization testified against junior high athletes and all secondary students who participated in extracurricular activities having grade standards raised to match actual graduation requirements, recently got fired under a cloud of suspicion of corrupt activities. That this extreme and unusual event happened illustrates the insular world of the establishment, which leads to its tendency to put its self-interest in exercising power and its constituencies – school employees and board members – ahead of children learning better.

Whether these expanded efforts compared to the last election cycle, principally in the ability to significantly support financially reform-minded candidates, will pay off with an expanded majority that could lead to another committed reformer as education chief remains to be seen. But, as previously noted, with other major contests essentially decided to the benefit of Republicans, certainly these contests have the most potential to produce policy change.

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