Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter have radically different ideas on how to improve Louisiana’s public schools.
Edwards is a longtime ally of state teachers unions, which have bitterly opposed most of the sweeping school changes enacted since 2012.
Vitter, a U.S. senator from Metairie, generally favors the business model for overhauling schools, with lots of options just like those enacted three years ago.
Edwards is a critic of school vouchers, long denounced by traditional public school groups.
Vitter backs them, as does state Superintendent of Education John White and his allies on the other side of the pro-Edwards divide.
Vitter supports charter schools.
Edwards is a charter school critic, and he has tried unsuccessfully to restrict their growth.
Edwards opposed letter grades for public schools in 2010, and he says they present a false picture.
In a prepared statement, Vitter said Tuesday that the state’s grading system “provides transparency and accountability for the parents and schools” but should be expanded to include more than standardized test results.
In short, few issues feature a bigger split between the two contenders for governor in the Nov. 21 runoff.
“Night and day,” said Brigitte Nieland, who tracks public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
The split was downplayed during the primary, in part because Vitter and Edwards are both critics of the topic that gets most of the attention — Common Core.
But after that, the divide on public schools is long and wide.
Traditional public school groups, including the Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers, have teamed up with Edwards for years in the Legislature.
The Democrat helped lead the opposition to most of the school overhaul plan that Gov. Bobby Jindal got passed in 2012, including the expansion of vouchers statewide and tougher job reviews for teachers.
“He has been a consistent champion for public education,” LAE President Debbie Meaux said.
Meaux noted that, earlier this year, Edwards played a key role in landing a $36 million education hike on the final day of a budget-dominated session.
Steve Monaghan, president of the LFT, said Vitter in Congress has voted to cut federal education aid by billions of dollars, opposed a teacher loan forgiveness measure and blasted teachers who showed up at the State Capitol to testify on a school day in 2012.
“Never has there been a simpler decision for us,” Monaghan said of his group’s choice for governor.
On the other side, self-styled school reform groups view Edwards as mostly hostile to what they see as vital changes needed to get Louisiana student achievement off the bottom of most U.S. lists.
“I believe that he believes that the traditional method can work, although it has not over the past 50 years,” said Ann Duplessis, president of the Louisiana Federation of Children.
Duplessis, who lives in charter school-dominated New Orleans, said Edwards has indicated he would not promote charter schools.
“Which is horrible, which is dangerous in my opinion,” she said.
Even Democrats for Education Reform, in a prepared statement, said it is “hopeful” that Edwards would continue policies that have sparked improved test scores and graduation rates in recent years.
Vitter’s campaign website says he would “fully support maximum parental choice and control, including all of our charter school, voucher scholarship and home school options, and actively oppose efforts to cut those choice options back.”
Edwards, whose wife, Donna, is a schoolteacher, is a member of the House Education Committee and a regular participant in often contentious school debates.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, another member of the committee, said that means Edwards, unlike Vitter, has been in the trenches during years of state public school battles.
“It is quite important to have a firsthand view of what is going on,” Smith said. “John has that.”
In their support for Edwards, the LFT and LAE noted that in 2013, Edwards played a key role in getting a $500 pay raise for teachers.
However, Nieland and others contend Edwards’ close ties to teachers unions — his spokeswoman is a former LFT official — should make voters leery. “He supports the union position, which is essentially resource, resource, resource; money, money, money; and don’t give us competition,” she said.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, made a similar point.
“It is clear that is where his allegiances are,” he said of the Democrat’s ties to teachers unions.
The governor names three of the 11-member state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which means either could try to advance his anti-Common Core views through that route.
However, all six BESE races decided on Saturday were won by pro-Common Core candidates, and the panel’s top two Common Core critics were ousted.
Edwards, in a prepared statement, downplayed the fallout from those results.
He said he has shown he can lead bipartisan coalitions and “BESE members will respond to my leadership in the governor’s office to make non-partisan policies that are best for our students, teachers and parents.”
Vitter’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.
Superintendent White’s future is unclear whether Edwards or Vitter wins in the runoff.
White did not respond to a request for comment.
Edwards said he would replace White, who has held the job for nearly four years.
Some Vitter backers think Vitter is of a similar mind.
However, it takes eight BESE members — a super majority — to name a new superintendent.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/