Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- The Louisiana State Capitol and it's grounds, photographed, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015.

As the four candidates for governor prepare for a debate on public school issues, views vary on what should top the education agenda for the one who wins the race.

How to improve student achievement — Louisiana has long ranked near the bottom nationally — is one of the recurring themes, especially in light of sweeping changes in public schools in recent years.

Public schools will be the key topic during a two-hour forum Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Louisiana School Boards Association in Shreveport.

Three Republicans are supposed to take part: U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Metairie; Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, of Baton Rouge; and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, of Breaux Bridge.

The lone Democrat in the contest, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite, also is expected, said Scott Richard, executive director of the LSBA.

One topic sure to spark controversy is Common Core.

The first exams that count on the new standards are set for March 16-20 amid controversy about whether students should be able to skip the test without their schools and districts being penalized.

But when a new governor takes office in January 2016, what should top the public schools agenda?

The issue is especially pertinent after Gov. Bobby Jindal’s “swinging for the fences” push since 2008 to toughen teacher tenure laws, overhaul teacher job evaluations, expand vouchers statewide, remake early childhood education and assign letter grades to public schools.

Two officials who follow education issues closely, but who rarely agree, made similar points on where the next governor should start.

“One thing that the governor would need to look at would be a reasonable conversation about Louisiana students and their ability to compete nationwide,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a veteran member of the House Education Committee.

“Right now we are at the bottom of the list in education, and our kids really don’t compete,” Smith said. “I think we need to have a reasonable conversation about how to get that done.”

Brigitte Nieland, who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said figuring out how to raise student achievement should be job one.

“We are still a D-minus; we are still 48th in the nation,” said Nieland, a reference to national reports that regularly rank Louisiana public schools near the bottom in classroom performance.

“When you just look at static performance, we have not moved much, and that has been disappointing,” she said.

Earlier this year, Education Week magazine gave the state a D-minus in its latest rankings on public education.

Louisiana ranked 50th in fourth-grade math proficiency, 48th in fourth-grade reading, 49th in eighth-grade math proficiency and 48th in eighth-grade reading.

State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, a veteran of the House Education Committee, said he would advise the next governor to give schools a chance to absorb the changes of recent years and “give our teachers and our students a chance to take a breath.”

“I don’t know that I would put a big item on the agenda,” Broadwater said of education issues.

Rayne Martin, executive director of Stand for Children Louisiana, said that while the state has created a “really rich policy reform environment,” it needs to be aggressive with implementation to spark improvements in classroom scores.

“There is still a body of people who unfortunately do not think all children can learn,” Martin said.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said the state’s generations-old poverty problems explain some of the difficulty in boosting student achievement.

“But with that being said, some school districts have proven that you can educate and bring lower-income-level (students) up to higher standards,” White said.

Public school issues have become a flashpoint for heated debates in recent years, with Common Core heading the list in the past 18 months.

Jindal, who first backed the overhaul, now is a national leader in denouncing the new standards.

Hollis Milton, superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school system, said in an email that candidates for governor need to detail their views on Common Core, whether they want to continue its test methods and what they would replace its standards and exams with, if that is their goal.

Others said the next governor needs to turn down the temperature on public school debates.

“I’ve never seen the actual learning environment as politically charged as it is today,” Cade Brumley, superintendent of the DeSoto Parish School System in northwest Louisiana, said in an email.

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