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Brumley choice ends expansive reform era

It may be déjà vu all over again in some ways for the Louisiana state superintendent of education, but that’s least true in the most important ways and most true in the least important of ways.

Wednesday, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education installed Jefferson Parish school Superintendent Cade Brumley as the state’s top education official, with the bare minimum of eight votes. This means Brumley will helm the Department of Education through 2023, subject to favorable annual evaluations by BESE.

In some fashion his rise to the post echoes his predecessor John White. Both were young at their commencement, had not spent a lot of time in the classroom, but had plenty of administrative experience.

There are a couple of key differences, which in large part defined the politics of Brumley’s selection. His administrative experience, with the exception of the last two years in Jefferson, was relatively parochial, starting as a principal, then becoming superintendent in DeSoto Parish. Prior to his taking the job in 2012, White had spent years in high-profile administrative roles, first in New York, then as head of Louisiana’s Recovery School District – as well as a stint outside of government as the head of Teach for America affiliates, the organization which prepared him for classroom teaching. To put it another way, White never had run a school or answered to a school board of elected officials, while Brumley until he became Jefferson’s leader (when he added charter schools to his portfolio and had a significant nonpublic school presence) had little experience with anything but traditional ways in education.

Also, Brumley’s career followed the most traditional of traditional paths – a bachelors education degree, teaching in a traditional school, principal of one, advanced education degrees, then onto his superintendent jobs. Unlike White, he never became a policy entrepreneur with visionary ideas of where to lead Louisiana education, but took a pragmatic tinkering view of policy implementation to get results within the larger framework that White and BESE provided.

That’s why Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards and his three BESE appointees so enthusiastically backed Brumley. They knew, with a solid majority of reformers on BESE, that nobody could win appointment who lobbied to turn back the clock on a successful series of reforms White, with legislative and BESE cooperation, had launched, changes which began with increased accountability of all of students, teachers, schools, and districts and then moved to more rigor, effort expended, and subject area expertise conveyed in instruction.

But at least they could get somebody in there who would lift the foot from the gas pedal, figuring Brumley with his very traditional background would. The person they didn’t want ascending to the job was Assistant Superintendent Jessica Baghian, whose background and links to education reform plus longtime association with White within the department they oversimply saw as cloning White on policy.

And Brumley has shown he’ll carry water for the education establishment troika of school boards, district superintendents, and unions. In his last year in DeSoto, he served as head of the lobbying arm for district chiefs, which reflexively opposed White, and carried their criticisms to him.

These interests convinced enough of the reform majority to back Brumley, and thus breaks the string of unambiguous reformers (excluding interim holders) on the job stretching back to Paul Pastorek’s term starting in 2007. No doubt this thrills Edwards, his education policy fellow travelers among elected Democrats, and the troika.

At the same time, Brumley didn’t get this far without having political skills, and so he must know this: nearly on a daily basis, Edwards’ influence fades a bit more, well before the end of his term (the latest sign: Edwards trying to bargain to reduce even a little extensive tort reform he appears unable to stop). Large Republican majorities in the legislature, who see no reason to change existing education policy, remain entrenched. Reform sentiments still have sway over the BESE majority – and when voters almost certainly elect a Republican governor in 2023 with the same, the existing three anti-reform appointees will flip to pro-reform replacements ready to offer a new four-year contract to a superintendent that fits their views.

Brumley could buck these dynamics and try to take the state backwards on education, which one might do if the next career step envisioned takes you to a larger state where anti-reform elements rule over such policy, with no certainty that ever could happen with the inertia he would face that would lead to much conflict and little in the way of results to impress outsiders. Much more likely, in order to leave any kind of imprint and make his career prospects brighter whether he seeks another four years in Louisiana, he’ll realize he needs to go with the flow.

Revanchist education forces in Louisiana may celebrate because the Brumley appointment means no more bold reform initiatives coming from that office. Yet neither should they expect any real backtracking from those initiatives already in place.


Unemployment challenges Edwards agenda

Louisiana Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards, in his quest to avoid right-sizing state government and introducing fiscal reform fueled by the imperative of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, finds himself wedged between a rock and hard place because of unemployment insurance changes.

Prior to the crisis, the state found itself in good shape on this account. States collect from employers (adjusted for experience) and employees (twice that for the self-employed) a tax that goes into a fund held by the federal government on their behalves, from which they can draw upon if current benefits payouts exceed tax intake. Louisiana collects and pays out in ranges and on average among the lowest amounts among the states, but had collected a nice cushion in its fund because of a number of policies – such as having no Short-Time Compensation program, typical earnings base and duration of benefits receipt, and (until Edwards waived it in late March) a waiting week for receive benefits – prevented aggressive distribution of benefits.

That thrift the federal and state pandemic responses now will put to the test, creating a two-fold budgetary problem. One is that unemployment insurance policy hastily created in the aftermath of the virus’ descendance onto society has the counterproductive impact of creating more unemployment and less economic activity, causing state government costs to rise and revenues to fall.


Casino closure canary or market firebreak?

The Wuhan coronavirus pandemic got the sick man of Louisiana casinos, in a region of the state that can ill-afford that.

Last week, DiamondJacks Casino in Bossier City announced it would close its doors for good. The state’s longest-existing licensed riverboat casino gave up the ghost just shy of its 26th birthday, citing the pandemic as the coup de grace.

It had been on the critical list for some time. Over the years it had drifted to the bottom of the state’s revenue tables, in the most recent full month of operation (February) having the third-lowest total revenue behind two smaller boats and the lowest revenue per admission – although, interestingly it and Margaritaville were the only two of the six in the Shreveport-Bossier market to post year-over-year revenue gains.


Lawmakers continue sidelining Edwards

Today, the Republican leadership in the Louisiana House of Representatives signaled again that a new sheriff had come to town.

The House Appropriations Committee dealt with HB 2, the capital outlay bill, dealt with $2.3 billion in cash the state had set aside for projects, as well as authorizing $3 billion in sales of general obligation bonds. But the real significance of its actions came over the use of $348 million in past surplus money eligible for spending on these kinds of projects.

This money came available from the fiscal year 2019 budget surplus, after shunting constitutionally-mandated portions to the Budget Stabilization Fund and to paying down unfunded accrued liabilities in state pensions plans. Besides these items and capital outlay, such funds also can go towards paying down state debt.


Edwards gimmickry rejects responsibility

Get ready for more smoke and mirrors than ever seen in Louisiana state government as Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards tries to save oversized government in the face of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic, or at least score some political points in the process.

That’s saying a lot. Until the late 1980s, policy-makers routinely would adjust revenue forecasts however they saw fit to justify spending levels they wanted to achieve. While the advent of the Revenue Estimating Conference sidelined that tactic, others remained, with the most flagrant example being the Louisiana Recovery District that circumvented constitutional prohibitions of issuing debt to pay for continuing operations, budgeting over multiple years, and increasing taxes without supermajority approval in the Legislature.

At least these tactics passed legal muster, before constitutional changes voided them. Saturday, Edwards released plans designed to prevent busting the fiscal year 2020 budget and a proposed FY 2021 budget in the face of revenues dropping over $1 billion as a result of the economic slowdown caused by the virus spread and proclamations by Edwards stalling a significant portion of the state’s economy. Both plans must be regarded as dubious.