Sep 5, 2011 10:54 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Elections for state school board seats are usually low-profile events, but this year they are shaping up as a balance-of-power battle that could hobble or speed up Louisiana's move toward charter schools, while settling a stalemate over who should be the next superintendent of education.
Three of the 11 seats on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education are appointed by the governor but eight are elected from districts. A new political action committee led by Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby hopes to raise as much as $2 million to support candidates favorable to charter schools, voucher programs and other alternatives to traditional public education.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who so far has no prominent opposition for re-election, will have a role as well. "He is going to get involved in the BESE races supporting candidates that want to see more reform," Jindal campaign strategist Timmy Teepell said.
However, what Jindal and business interests see as reform is seen as something else by a coalition of teacher unions, school board members, administrators and other education interests that make up the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education. The group is planning to back candidates who, in the words of founding member Jack Loup, "support public education instead of privatization."
Loup, a veteran of the St. Tammany Parish School Board, said that after candidates officially sign up for the race next week, the coalition will put its alliances to work.
"Our job is to do grass roots," he said. "We're going to get as many of the administrators, teachers, bus drivers, clerical, cafeteria workers - we're going to try to educate all of them on who we feel like is the candidate that will be best on BESE."
All the political money and organizational muscle is being devoted to a body that rarely draws such attention. "It's one of the most important elected bodies that we have that nobody knows anything about," said Barry Erwin, head of the nonpartisan research group Council for a Better Louisiana.
Important, Erwin said, because while the Legislature charts the course of education with laws, BESE and the state Department of Education implement the policies with rules and regulations. BESE also approves the person who serves as superintendent of education. That post was vacated in May by Paul Pastorek, an attorney who returned to more lucrative work in the private sector. Pastorek, a former BESE member, was long a supporter of the changes questioned by the Coalition. Jindal has a replacement in mind - John White, now head of the state agency that oversees most New Orleans Schools. But approval requires a two-thirds BESE vote and, despite his three appointments to the body, Jindal so far doesn't have the votes for approval.
BESE watchers say the board often splits 6-5 on votes that largely have gone the way of the self-styled reformers who back a series of education overhauls begun in the late 1990s. Those include an accountability system that ranks schools largely on the result of standardized test scores, attendance and dropout rates; provisions for state takeovers of schools that consistently fail under the operation of local school boards; and a change in the takeover law that enabled the state's Recovery School District to assume control of most New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina. Most of those RSD-controlled schools have been put into the hands of independent charter organizations. The RSD also has taken over control of more than a dozen other failing schools around the state, some of which have been chartered.
There has been measurable progress in the New Orleans schools but it has come at a cost. Thousands of teachers and school employees were laid off after Katrina and are awaiting a state court ruling over whether they were denied their rights when they were let go.
And, while the state touts improvement in test scores, the coalition is raising questions, accusing charter schools of selectively admitting students - school officials insist they are not - and pointing to recent scandals including allegations of sexual incidents that resulted in the revocation of the license of one charter operator. A BESE vote is pending that would give RSD more oversight of charters.
Also, the coalition characterizes RSD claims of improvement in New Orleans as overblown, saying statistics used to bolster some claims are the result of aggregating RSD scores with those of schools still controlled by the New Orleans school board, which was allowed to keep some high-performing schools after Katrina.
Both sides say they want to wait until candidates officially sign up (the qualifying period is Sept 6-8) to list their endorsements but some of the races, and their backers, are already shaping up.
In southwestern Louisiana, for instance, Jindal and the Grigsby-supported Alliance for Better Classrooms PAC are hoping to defeat longtime incumbent BESE member Dale Bayard, aligned with the coalition. The challenger is 2010 Louisiana Teacher of the Year Holly Boffy.
Also likely to gain Jindal and ABC PAC support is Kira Orange Jones, expected to challenge Coalition-backed incumbent Louella Givens.
Teepell said the governor likely will back incumbents Chas Roemer, representing the Baton Rouge area, and Jim Garvey of Jefferson Parish against expected challenges from Coalition-backed candidates.
Pastorek, although gone, will likely loom large in the campaign. So will White, the young former New York City school official and ally of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who had barely landed in the RSD job before his name surfaced as a candidate to replace Pastorek.
Teepell said Jindal still would like to see White in the superintendent's job, although it's not a hard and fast requirement for the governor's support. For instance, Boffy said in an interview that she was not committing to a choice for the job, adding that a national search might be in order. She made clear, however, that she supported Pastorek's efforts. "He made great strides in terms of moving our state forward," she said.
"But I'd like to see that done without such polarity," she added, a reference to Pastorek's combative nature, which earned him criticism at times even from allies.
Bayard meanwhile, decries what he sees as too much loss of local control of schools in recent years. And he sounds a theme similar to the ideas expressed by the Coalition. "I'm a conservative person," he said. "I think we need to focus more on local control of tax dollars."
In addition to arguing over issues, some candidates may find themselves having to give what amounts to a civics lesson to voters about what BESE does. Erwin recalls a recent conference CABL sponsored bringing together about 50 up and coming community leaders from around the state.
"I wish there were more interest," said Boffy. "One of my challenges is educating the voters about what BESE is and that they do elect a BESE representative."