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Colleges should avoid appearance of favoritism

Several Louisiana higher education institutions may have put their thumbs on the scale to aid anti-reform candidates in Board of Elementary and Secondary Education contests.

From the middle of September on, candidate forums were conducted across the state for the seven contests on the ballot this Saturday. These were conducted by a recently-formed interest group called the Louisiana Public Schools Coalition, comprised of unions and special interests tied to district superintendents and school boards -- all of whom have a history of resisting a reform agenda that emphasizes measured classroom achievement, educational choice, and commitment to escalating standards.

The forums (some of which were recorded) naturally were imbalanced in that the questions came from the organizers (although not all were moderated by people associated with the organizers) and from members in an audience typically stacked with sympathizers, if not affiliates, of the special interests behind the group. There’s nothing wrong with that; candidates know what they get into and even if proceedings slant to promote certain views, useful information for voters can come from that. (Not all pro-reform incumbents attended the forums.)

But a problem does arise when public institutions using public dollars assist a group with a clear political agenda in a manner that could influence an election. And of the ten forums, six had Louisiana higher education institutions aid their promotion.

In four cases – Fletcher Technical Community College, Northshore Tech Community College, River Parishes Community College, and the University of Louisiana Monroe – the institutions provided space for the forums. While minimally involved, this could be construed as endorsement of the views expressed by the organizers by institutions funded with taxpayer dollars.

However, in two cases the endorsement seemed more explicit. Although two Capital-area forums, to cover Districts 6 and 8, occurred in Denham Springs and Baton Rouge at a public library and public school, respectively, the Louisiana State University School of Education sent out an e-mail message of a weblog post promoting the events. Readers were encouraged to attend the forums, promising that school leadership would attend.

Public institutions of higher education should provide avenues for the exercise of democracy – but not when by doing so it can appear they favor certain special interests to the exclusion of others. Taxpayer resources cannot end up steered in way that seems to endorse particular views, so these institutions need to act with more discretion and discernment in these matters.

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