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BESE changes promote more fragmented education policy

An interesting pair of bills proffered for the 2011 Regular Session of the Louisiana Legislature starting today look to present for voter approval alteration of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s composition. In this instance, it’s best to leave well alone.

Presently, 11 members sit on BESE which has its members serve four-year terms coterminous with those of other statewide elected officials. Eight come from single-member districts directly elected while three are appointed by the governor. HB 84 by state Rep. Pat Smith would reduce gubernatorial appointments to one with the state House and Senate each having one, while HB 96 by state Rep. Herbert Dixon would reduce the number of appointed members in total to one, jointly selected by the governor, House, and Senate. Each proposes to change the Constitution, and thus needs two-thirds approval in the respective chambers and majority approval by the state’s voters.

Louisiana’s present system exists as an outlier among state education governance structures. Only Ohio also has a combination system of elected members and governor-appointed members who then appoint a chief executive officer for state schools. In fact, these changes would move away further from the dominant model used by two-thirds of states, appointment of the entire board by the governor, where 13 of the 33 also have the board select the CEO. Only Mississippi uses any kind of hybrid appointive authority where more than one majoritarian branch in government does so.

Education policy always has contained an element of schizophrenia. The task of educating, since the late nineteenth century when public schooling became widespread (previously, it had been dominated by private schools by institutions or by communities’ families who voluntarily would commit to providing a school), has become considered a profession and therefore to some degree antithetical to politics. However, as policy is anything government chooses to do or not to do, by definition any government connection to education is political, so most states adopted a model that gives education its own separate governing authority, to isolate it from other political matters that could interfere in the professional aspect, yet because the decisions this authority makes themselves are political popular control at least indirectly was imposed.

Where states directly impose this accountability, through elections of members, typically the CEO either himself is elected separately or appointed from outside of the board. Most of the time he is granted powers to provide direction or leadership to the board. Only seven states follow a model where there is no direction explicitly attached in some way to the board from another power source in state government, the general model with a majority of its members not from another source but elected closest to Louisiana’s.

That kind of leadership is important. A board made up only of elected members without a countervailing check in the form of an independent CEO magnifies the risk of inability of board members to come to consensus or policy geared towards special interests in their districts with an insufficient statewide view on education. Especially when the board appoints the CEO, appointed members from an outside power source can bring the opportunity to coordinate and would be less likely to fall prey to parochial interests.

Thus Smith’s bill moves in the wrong direction by lopping off two appointive members and fragments the appointive authority of the remaining one. Dixon’s also comes up short as it has bodies that themselves face parochial kinds of pressure appoint two of the three, promoting comparatively less of a statewide view.

Therefore, these proposed amendments if enacted probably would decrease the amount of coordination of elementary and secondary education in Louisiana, and promote multiple parochial interests at the expense of those that take the entire state into consideration. As such, these attempts to change the Constitution the Legislature should reject.

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