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Education issues figure prominently in NW LA races

Education issues will play a big part in at least a couple of contests this fall in northwest Louisiana, according to campaign rhetoric that voters must consider carefully.

Obviously these will in the race for District 4 of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. This one features three Republicans: the appointed incumbent principal Mary Harris, challenger teacher Glynnis Johnston, and challenger businessman Tony Davis.

Whether to support reforms implemented in the past few years to Louisiana’ historically worst-in-the-nation educational system has created a fault line across the state in BESE competitions. These changes for the first time demand meaningful accountability out of schools and teachers, through the use of valid and more objective performance measurements and in increased parental schooling choices for their children. As such, these have become bitterly resisted by teacher unions and teachers unwilling or unable to raise their levels of performance, by administrators and school board members whose jobs and reelections are threatened, and by ideologue policy-makers who prefer government command and control that places the desires of adults over the needs of children.

This noxious combination has organized itself into a special interest called “Flip BESE.” But besides trying to weaken accountability standards and to reduce educational choice, its endorsees cleverly oppose the Common Core State Standards Initiatives. Typically, Republicans and conservatives have favored these school reforms, but many also see Common Core as problematic. By emphasizing their Common Core opposition above all, they seek to obscure their reactionary agenda and thereby trick voters into supporting them who otherwise would not.

Harris got the Flip BESE endorsement and, while she touts herself as “strong conservative” and “lifelong Republican,” appears against sensible accountability measures with her euphemistic use of “overtesting” as something to fight against and employs another catchphrase common to the Flip BESE crowd as a believer in “local control” of schools – that is, forswearing BESE’s power to charter schools, practically meaning eliminating charter schools as few are chartered at local levels because districts don’t want to lose power over and the money directed to schools that get chartered. She opposes Common Core.

So does Johnston, who additionally opposes the idea that teachers should be evaluated on the basis of how well they help students progress, falling back on the traditional, if not derogatory, excuse that demographic aspects of students make some inherently unable to learn adequately – a reprehensible notion contradicted by research into the performance of charter schools and voucher students.

Davis, who as a business leader in Natchitoches has been involved heavily in educational matters, entered the race at the last minute presumably as an alternative to the reactionary and anti-Common Core agendas of Harris and Johnston. He has done little campaigning and it is unclear what his views are on pertinent education issues.

Education also has emerged as an issue in the contest to succeed outgoing state Sen. Robert Adley. State Rep. Henry Burns, lawyer Ryan Gatti, and businessman Todd Hollenshead. Although possibly Republicans Burns and Gatti could face each other in the general election runoff, probably only one will finish better than third to tangle with the Democrat Hollenshead.

Gatti in his television ads alludes to putting education decisions “back in the hands of teachers” – a velied attack on accountability reforms. He reiterates that on radio and that ad also refers to Burns’ being against anti-bullying legislation. That bill is not made clear but Burns did vote in favor of Act 861 of 2012, which instituted effective anti-bullying measures in schools.

Even as Gatti asserts that he is a “true conservative” on this and other issues, trying to draw a distinction with Burns who voted for around $500 million in tax increases this year, problematic for him if elected to act as one would be if his good friend state Rep. John Bel Edwards were to win the governor’s race. The liberal Democrat, for whom Gatti held a rally and to whom he gave $1,000 in 2014 and $2,000 more in 2015, is not expected to triumph, but were he to it’s questionable whether Gatti would vote as a conservative on education, where Edwards generally echoes the Flip BESE preferences, or on other issues where Edwards chooses to use his relationships and other tools of the office at his disposal to get legislators to back his liberal preferences.

Voters need to gather full information about these candidates and to understand the code they use in order not to be misled when making their choices.

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