Democratic gubernatorial contender John Bel Edwards’ stance on charter schools and vouchers is coming under scrutiny, with critics charging that both would be in jeopardy if Edwards is elected governor.
Edwards disputes the criticism and says his position has been mischaracterized.
“I know that he has said he would not hurt the (voucher) program or would hurt charter schools,” said Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher group Louisiana Federation for Children.
“I am a little concerned about that,” said Duplessis, a view repeated by officials of other self-styled school reform groups.
Edwards’ campaign recently took the unusual step recently of sending a memo to “interested parties” aimed at defusing the complaints.
“Suggesting that John Bel Edwards will ‘dismantle” or ‘destroy’ charter schools is beyond ludicrous,” the message said.
Edwards and Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who meet in the runoff for governor on Saturday, have long had sharp differences on public schools.
Edwards is allied with teachers unions and other traditional public school groups.
Vitter is backed by business and other organizations that back sweeping changes in school operations.
But the Democrat’s stance on charter schools and vouchers has come under special attention in recent days, including the launch of a six-figure TV ad campaign by Duplessis’ group that features a mother asking why Edwards wants to end the voucher program.
Edwards, a state representative from Amite, has denied having any such plans.
Vitter generally has praised the growth of charter schools and vouchers.
Vouchers are state aid for low-income students who attend troubled public schools to enroll in private or parochial schools.
About 7,000 students get the assistance.
Charter schools are public schools run by nongovernmental boards, and they are supposed to serve as laboratories for cutting-edge education techniques.
About 70,000 students attend the schools in 20 parishes, and New Orleans has one of the heaviest presences of charter schools in the nation.
Earlier this year, Edwards, as he has done previously, tried to pass a bill that would ban Louisiana’s top school board from authorizing charter schools in districts rated A or B by the state.
He has said local school boards in high-performing school districts should enjoy autonomy on whether charter schools are approved.
Opponents contend that, even in school districts rated A or B, thousands of students attend schools rated C, D or F.
The bill failed.
Edwards also has pushed unsuccessfully to prevent the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from approving charter schools earlier turned down by local school boards.
He told the Louisiana School Boards Association that doing so usurps the authority of local officials.
Edwards told the LSBA that, while many charter schools serve a useful purpose, “many more are caught in scandal and malfeasance and aren’t serving their intended purpose.”
He said the schools have no requirement to hire certified teachers, many do not take part in the state retirement system and many fail to serve children with special needs.
Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said Tuesday Edwards has backed bills that would erode the authority of charter schools and is backed by teachers unions that oppose them.
Edwards also sponsored a bill earlier this year that would prevent kindergarten students from qualifying for vouchers unless they would otherwise attend public schools rated D or F.
Duplessis, a Democratic state senator from 2004-10, criticized the measure and said kindergarten “is the critical time to catch a child.”
In 2012, Edwards opposed a bill pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that expanded vouchers statewide, and he was later the lead witness in a court challenge.
The Democrat said he did so because of the methods the Jindal administration used to fund vouchers.
“He said early on that it was unconstitutional,” said Les Landon, a spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, which backs Edwards. “And we won.”
Exactly how he would change the voucher program if elected governor is unclear.
Mary Patricia Wray, spokeswoman for the Democrat, said in an email Monday that Edwards “plans to bring increased accountability to the voucher program to ensure that parents have high-quality choices.”