BESE, John Bel Edwards likely to disagree on major issues: vouchers, charter schools, Common Core _lowres

Louisiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rep. John Bel Edwards greets supporters as he watches election returns in a hotel suite at his election night watch party in New Orleans, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) ORG XMIT: LAGH102

The last two races settled Saturday night for Louisiana’s top school board means there will be a huge split between the board and Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards on the future of public schools.

Key disputes loom on hot-button changes in school operations, Common Core and possibly the future of state Superintendent of Education John White, who Edwards wants out.

Edwards was backed by the state’s two teacher unions — the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators — and former LFT and LAE officials held key jobs in his campaign.

Both organizations have bitterly opposed the drive to overhaul schools, including the expansion of vouchers, charter schools and school letter grades.

Edwards is scheduled to address the annual meeting of the LFT on Monday at 12:30 p.m. in Lake Charles.

But seven of eight seats were won by business-backed candidates in the primary and runoff, and self-styled education reformers will keep their majority no matter which three people Edwards names to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“So voters made a big statement there in my opinion,” Eva Kemp, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said Sunday.

“I hope that John Bel will see that we have made a lot of progress over the last several years,” Kemp said. “Rolling back that progress is not what voters want to see and what students need.”

On the other side, Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said he is optimistic Edwards’ win will pave the way for greater harmony among BESE, the governor and the Legislature.

“Not every issue will be a dog fight,” Richard said.

On Saturday, voters elected Kathy Edmonston, a veteran education official in Ascension Parish, over Jason Engen in the District 6 race to succeed BESE President Chas Roemer.

Edmonston, a critic of Common Core, was backed by teacher unions and other critics of BESE.

Engen was supported by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the lone loss for LABI in primary and runoff races for the state school board.

In the other contest, Common Core critic and BESE member Mary Harris, of Shreveport, was narrowly defeated by Tony Davis, who is the president of the Natchitoches Chamber of Commerce.

Harris, who was serving an unexpired term in District 4, was backed by teacher unions and Davis by LABI.

The Harris loss marked the third time that an incumbent Common Core critic was ousted by voters.

Edwards is a longtime critic of school vouchers, which are state aid for low-income students in troubled public schools to attend private and parochial classrooms.

Vouchers have enjoyed years of support from BESE, and White is one of their biggest proponents.

Edwards wants to put curbs on charter schools, and he has tried without luck in the Legislature to ban them in school districts rated A or B.

But the schools have grown statewide under BESE, and New Orleans has one of the heaviest presence of charter schools in the nation.

Edwards says letter grades for public schools present a false picture.

Yet the grades have major supporters on BESE, including Jim Garvey, who may be the next president of BESE.

Edwards opposes Common Core, and he has questioned whether the review process underway by about 100 educators and others will spark substantive changes.

However, seven of the eight elected BESE members are generally viewed as supportive of the standards, or something close to them.

Backers of the governor-elect call him a consensus builder, and Edmonston downplayed suggestions that BESE and Edwards will be hopelessly at odds.

“I think there is maybe more common ground than there is not,” she said Sunday.

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for LABI, said most voters like the way education has gone in recent years.

“The governor will only have three of the appointees, and no matter who those appointees are, it is still going to be largely a pro-reform board,” Nieland said last week.

An early test of Edwards’ influence over BESE will be on whether White keeps his job as the $275,000-per-year superintendent.

White, who has held the post for nearly four years, says he wants to stay.

Edwards said in June, and repeated Sunday, that he has no intention of letting that happen, and he said White is not qualified to be a middle school principal.

White’s contract comes up in January, but it takes eight of 11 BESE members — a supermajority — to end the contract and eight to agree on a new one.

Lane Grigsby, a Baton Rouge businessman and chairman of a super PAC that was heavily involved in BESE races, said Edwards was not elected for his public school plans.

“It was a rejection of David Vitter,” Grigsby said. “People elected seven out of eight times to keep the reforms that we have.”

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs and a frequent critic of White, said Edwards is limited in what he can do about the superintendent in the short term.

“Can he make an immediate change? Absolutely not. There may be other ways to go about it,” said Pope, who was superintendent of the Livingston Parish School District for 14 years.

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