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Enthusiasm gap pummels Melancon, gives Cao hope

Much has been made of the “enthusiasm gap” predicted for this fall, that Republicans will be more likely to turn out at the polls than Democrats giving their candidates advantages. Early voting statistics in Louisiana appear to show this state comports to this tide.

The Aug. 28 party primary elections feature a statewide party primary for each of Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian nominees for senator, and congressional primaries for Democrats to challenge for the Second District, for Republicans to go for an open seat in the Third, for Democrats to challenge for the Fourth, and for a Republican to challenge the incumbent for the nomination in the Fifth. Keep in mind that Republicans only may vote in their primaries and Libertarians in theirs, while in the Democrat primaries Democrats and no-party registrants may vote in those. Through Tuesday, the statewide figures were 6,525 Republicans having voted, 5,015 Democrats having touched the screen, and 525 no-party and other party registrants having joined them.

The numbers reflect to some degree the competitiveness of the contests, which, on whole, are about the same for each major party. Neither has what is shaping up to be competitive Senate primaries, but there are spirited races for the Democrats in the Second and Republicans in the Third. Democrat David Melville ought to win easily in the Fourth, while incumbent Rep. Rodney Alexander should cruise to renomination in the Fifth.

This means that, given pretty equivalent competitiveness stimuli, of the state’s registered voters as of Aug. 1 about 0.86 percent of Republicans, 0.34 percent of Democrats, and 0.08 percent of no-party and other party registrants have voted in these first three days of early voting. Also considering that 9,975 whites and 1,898 blacks have voted, representing, respectively, about 0.53 percent and 0.21 percent of their totals, means there are three interesting aspects of these statistics to note.

First, while typically GOP adherents are slightly more likely to vote early, the initial gap between the major party participants is huge. Second, the very scarce turnout of no-party/other party people, despite a Libertarian statewide primary and an invitation to vote in Democrat primaries, shows that independents are very unenthusiastic about choosing Democrats. Third, while typically whites are slightly more likely to vote early, even with the Second District Democrat primary present and seen as the event by which to anoint the “official” black challenger to Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, blacks – who vote overwhelmingly Democrat – also seem less intensely caring about elections so far this cycle than do whites.

This tableau of relatively greater enthusiasm by Republicans than Democrats and presumably lesser enthusiasm by independents for Democrats impacts potentially two of these contests. For the Senate, it confirms the impossibility of Democrat challenger Rep. Charlie Melancon of knocking off Republican incumbent Sen. David Vitter absent an incredible blunder by the latter that could reverse the enthusiasm gap. But it also gives hope to Cao, especially with the relatively low initial black turnout from the statewide numbers where, given the nature of the Second District nomination battle, it should be much higher.

While the district’s demographics are very much against Cao, there’s some evidence to believe he’s not dead in the water in his reelection attempt. Further, the main reason Cao pulled off his big upset in 2008 was because of an enthusiasm gap favoring him (running against the national tide of a month previous, then). Perhaps these very early indications show the stars might align again in his favor.


High standards, teacher testing key to new law's success

Noises emanating from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education indicate that the new teacher evaluation system for public educators holds promise, with some tweaks, in improving the quality of education in Louisiana.

The Board’s annual retreat featured remarks from the designers of the new system, necessitated by a new law that stipulates annual evaluations for all (it had been every three years for those with tenure) and that half of it be tied to student achievement, reviewing baselines and judging on progress made. Now, other details being filled in are emerging.

Appropriately, changes in subject knowledge of English, mathematics, reading, science, and social studies will comprise the half. Adding slightly as part of the other half are factors related to capacity and motivation to learn, represented by indicators like eligibility for free- or reduced-price lunches (a measure of poverty), attendance, disability, and discipline. The remainder presumably is observations of classroom management. Corrective actions will be taken for low performers, with dismissal if performance does not approve according to these metrics.

If this represents a broad brush treatment, some specifics still need addressing. While achievement gains will work well as a proxy for overall quality of teaching, they still do not capture fully the concept of teacher subject area knowledge. For example, a teacher competently versed in his subject may be able to slide by with good, motivated students who can overcome by themselves this teacher’s knowledge deficiencies, whereas one who is very knowledgeable despite that may have difficulty with a collection of less-capable students. This creates fewer incentives for the less knowledgeable teachers to improve their performances which could really multiply the achievement of better students, and might put a knowledgeable teacher at hazard of dismissal. Therefore, annual subject area teaching of every employee with a teaching license (in as many areas as a teacher wants to take) should be part of this, perhaps a quarter of the score.

Doing this also would reduce the impact of politics in the evaluation process. Before this new law, way too much of the process was subjective, allowing principal’s pets to stay on despite poor actual ability or not discouraging the setting of mediocre standards for retention. With the achievement requirement, but especially with a testing requirement, objective standards would constitute the large majority of the evaluation instrument. However, classroom management skills are a necessity as pedagogically disorganized and behaviorally unruly classes impede learning, so this should carry some weight and provide an opportunity to identify shortcomings in these areas just as the testing would identify knowledge deficiencies.

This consideration, however, brings up perhaps the most crucial and as yet unaddressed detail of all: standards to determine retention and correction must be demanding. As anybody who has spent some time in a classroom at any level will tell you (if honest), genuine, superior achievement only comes through being a demanding instructor with high standards. Ever since testing was introduced in Louisiana schools, each year after taking the Graduate Exit Exam or its equivalent, some high school students with very high GPAs end up not passing it (even class valedictorians). This is because little was asked of them by their teachers, whereas some students in high schools were standards are much higher may struggle to earn grades to pass yet pass the end-of-course exams.

Some of this disparity is as a result of teachers being incompetent in subject material, but more often is has to do with teacher effort. Demanding more out of students means demanding more out of yourself in terms of ability to cover more topics more thoroughly and to create and grade challenging assessments. You have to put more into lectures, into making assignments and in the number of them, and in grading and offering corrective information. It’s harder work which many will not do on their own unless the benchmarks make them do so.

It would be nice if, as one BESE member commented, the presence of these new criteria didn’t change the way teachers behaved in the performance of their duties. But that’s not the real world, where many will put in just the effort they need to get by (some will be driven to do more regardless of level of standards and relative incentives). This points to one other aspect that should be incorporated explicitly into the system: merit pay. Beyond the threat of dismissal, merit pay based upon this kind of system largely based on objective measures will encourage greater excellence out of more teachers, and for those already highly self-motivated to achieve will provide ample reward for their superior service.

So the promise is there (especially as it complements previous efforts), but adding these kinds of things into the equation is the difference between marginal improvement in quality of education and creating a world class educational system in Louisiana.


Vitter win, GOP opponent motivation closer to confirmation

Release of various data make clearer the direction and strategy being employed in Louisiana’s Senate contest this fall, confirming the one-sidedness of the race and shedding some light on the tactics involved.

There’s no reason to change the assessment that Republican incumbent Sen. David Vitter has clear sailing to winning reelection. Federal Election Commission pre-primary election finance reports due yesterday with data through Aug. 8 show Vitter took in over a half a million dollars, leaving him with 10 times that amount available. Leading Democrat challenger Rep. Charlie Melancon took in only less than half of that, leaving him with about 40 percent of the funds Vitter has on hand. It’s enough for Melancon to hang on competitively, but to claw back as much as a 20 percent point deficit, especially consider Vitter’s totals it’s not nearly enough. (The FEC did not have the latest figures available as of this posting: the New Orleans Times-Picayune appears to have gotten copies of candidate’s reports.)

Vitter’s main GOP challenger former state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor raised just around $42,000, ending any speculation that his was a viable candidacy. The rule of thumb is that for a House of Representatives contest the typical challenger needs a minimum of $500,000 to be at all competitive, and for the Senate in a state like Louisiana a minimum of $1 million. Having a little over $40,000 with almost none spent three weeks out from a primary isn’t going to cut it. Confirming that judgment, a Southern Media and Opinion Research poll gave Vitter a 76-5 percent lead over Traylor for the GOP nomination. (Even a push poll conducted on behalf of Traylor’s campaign reported by a media company that endorsed Traylor showed him well behind Vitter.)


Dynamics make difficult Dardenne defeat for lt. gov.

In the race for Louisiana’s most useless statewide position, early indications are that name recognition and some bucks are what you need not only to win a special election, but to win without the trouble of a general election runoff.

The first public poll released about the contest, necessitated when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu finally got himself elected to that and abandoned the sleepy job of handshaking, ribbon-cutting, watching the secretary of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism work, and waiting around for any vacancy in the Governor’s Mansion, reveals the choice of a plurality of the state’s voters is … unknown. Some 40 percent of respondents said they didn’t know who they would vote for. But as for the remainder, about 25 percent gave the nod to Republican Secretary of State Jay Dardenne and a bit over half as many to musician and previous candidate Republican Sammy Kershaw. Everybody else was mired in the low single digits, the two biggest names of which were Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere and Democrat state Sen. D.A. “Butch” Gautreaux.

A few reasons explain why Dardenne and Kershaw are succeeding as opposed to the others. A special election magnifies the importance of existing candidate resources. Because these are elections to which fewer people pay attention, it multiplies the importance of campaign money, and its related consideration that can be obtained through the use of that money, name recognition, in the campaign. Those with a lot of money, like Dardenne, or name recognition, Kershaw because of his musical career, are advantaged early on. It also doesn’t hurt that Dardenne has some name recognition as a statewide elected official, and that Kershaw had reported the second-most money on hand to (and nearly a half of a million or so dollars behind) Dardenne and himself had run in the 2007 regular election.

The results must be most discouraging to Villere, who has spent already more than $100,000, more than all other candidates combined except Dardenne (at least by the end of June). Seen as a very conservative candidate, his biggest competitor in that regard is the more libertarian Kershaw who also, as somebody involved in the culture industry that nominally is overseen by the lieutenant governor, may be viewed as having special qualifications for the job. Democrats waved a white flag when Gautreaux got in the contest at the last minute and while he’ll get several times his current percentage simply because he will be the only Democrat in race with any name recognition, this result shows he won’t be competitive.

Nor may anybody else be, if we define “competitive” as making a general election runoff, except Dardenne. With plenty of money to burn, he’s halfway to winning outright in October, perhaps the most trenchant piece of information from the poll. The question now becomes whether an implicit recognition arises among the other candidates to go after Dardenne. They may find support for this in the public, for many in it view Dardenne as a political chameleon doing whatever it takes to serve his ambitions for progressively higher office, and every step up makes it more likely he can win at the next highest level.

But even a negative strategy does not hold much promise, because the lieutenant governor does almost nothing. There’s not much to criticize on in terms of what he would do in office because so little meaningful policy gets made by that officer. That great equalizer to the bludgeoning force of resources, campaigning on relevant issues, is minimized in this contest, and all the personal mudslinging in the world won’t matter much in such a low stimulus contest. At this point, barring shocking unanticipated developments, the only question is whether Dardenne wins in October or November.