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BESE outcomes could halt needed education reforms

They aren’t make-or-break, but elections later this week to Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education could blunt the pace of education reform in the state.

All eight elected spots appear on Saturday’s ballot and in an indirect fashion so do the other three appointive positions. The governor selects these members for terms concurrent with the elected members with an eye towards supporting his policy preferences, and with a new man coming on board it’s likely none of the members currently serving will get invited back by someone wanting to put his own stamp of authority onto BESE.

Three issues played large roles in the term now concluding: accountability for all of schools, districts, and teachers; school choice; and usage/implementation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. By no means is BESE the determinative factor in policy-making on these accounts; in fact, its role is minor compared to the governor’s and Legislature’s.

But because of its major role in implementation of policy-making by the majoritarian branches, it can in effect influence that policy. For example, for several years the majoritarian branches have made it clear they have supported charter schools as a method to induce greater accountability from traditional schools and to improve children’s education overall. They mandate that an unlimited number may exist, and that even if local education districts reject establishment of them in their jurisdictions, they wrote the law so that BESE essentially may override that decision.

However, several candidates running for BESE have declared they would be exceptionally parsimonious in choosing, if outright refuse in every case, to vote for creating a charter school. Because historically rarely do local school boards grant charters as they lose control over personnel and resources as a result, this becomes tantamount to a blockade on new charters and renewals of them. In effect, such behavior by enough members would remove the use of this tool to improve education, and to an extent vetoes legislative intent (unless the Legislature changes the law to overcome such an obstacle).

The 2015 elections have seen developed a fault line between the current BESE majority’s reformist policies and reactionary opponents. Three incumbents almost always have voted for policy that demands greater accountability, maximizes school choice, and favors implementation of Common Core, while two other incumbents not running for reelection joined them. In addition, one appointee also typically voted with them that at present gives them a majority.

Usually against them were two other incumbents, joined often by the other who recently was appointed to fulfill an unexpired term and, at least on Common Core issues, the other two appointees. All of those incumbents are running this time.

Adding intrigue is the role of the three appointees. Were Sen. David Vitter or Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle to win the governor’s race, they probably would pick people who favor accountability and choice but who are against Common Core, while Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne would pick the same kind except that they would favor Common Core. By contrast, state Rep. John Bel Edwards would almost certainly choose individuals that would weaken accountability, reduce choice, and want to back away the state from Common Core.

Thus, just an electoral change against the majority in one place presumably, unless Dardenne wins, seats an anti-Common Core BESE. Actually, that alone doesn’t pose a threat to the standards under laws passed earlier this year, which set up a process where expert committees propose any changes, including scrapping the standards altogether, that then must get BESE and also legislative committee and gubernatorial approval in order to be implemented. Still, were anti-Common Core forces able to win enough legislative districts, with a sympathetic governor to their cause, they could rig legislative committee structures to abandon it, if BESE goes along. Otherwise, without agreement from all involved, the standards at present remain in force.

Bigger net negative electoral changes for reformers could reduce reform to a crawl. Besides issuing charters, BESE can do things like alter the scoring mechanism for strengthened teacher accountability to dilute this, regulate the voucher program in ways to make it less effective, and set the bar on proficiency goals too low to encourage improvement. Assuming the gubernatorial winner is not Edwards, who as an ally of teacher unions opposes bitterly recent reforms, and the subsequent appointees favor reform, then reactionaries would have to win six of the eight contests to try to reverse policy. In the improbable event that Edwards triumphs, then they need but three victories; keep in mind that there are two incumbents already of that mindset and the appointed incumbent has tended to agree with them.

It’s hard to predict what will happen. The three reformist incumbents should be favored, and one of the open seats of a reformer looks likely to be retained by a reformer. Less certain is the other open seat, and reformers seem to have been behind the curve in the district with the appointed incumbent that may solidify that seat as one for a reactionary. The two reactionary incumbents face strong challengers and their reelections are up in the air. Anything from reformers gaining a net two elected seats, giving them seven and a guaranteed majority (six would do the same), or losing one, giving them four and possibly becoming a minority (as they would with maintaining the present balance) not just on Common Core but on reform as a whole, are probable scenarios, but wackier things could happen.

Because of statutes, a majority reactionary BESE could not unilaterally reverse reform. But it could throw a spanner in the works that might retard needed progress for at least four years.

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