'We don't have the support': Gov. John Bel Edwards' schools legislative agenda mostly dead _lowres

AP Photo by MELINDA DESLATTE -- Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards talks about his first 100 days since taking office in January, at a press conference on April 19.

With several bills already on life support, Gov. John Bel Edwards has pulled the plug on his high-profile education proposals to restrict access to vouchers and curb the growth of charter schools.

“We don’t have the support we need to advance those bills,” said Erin Monroe Wesley, special counsel for Edwards who also oversees legislative affairs.

The proposals, like most of the governor’s public schools agenda, have been battered for weeks.

Most of Edwards’ public schools package is dead, stalled or in disarray.

Even the governor’s own sponsor of a bill to curb access to vouchers — Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings — said he will not push the bill.

On another front, a watered-down measure to limit the growth of charter schools, another Edwards priority, was withdrawn by Morrish amid heavy committee opposition.

Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the governor’s problems with his education agenda point out the pitfalls of a divided state government — Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature.

“Frankly, I think we are going to see a lot of this over the next four years,” Cross said. “The Legislature is not necessarily going to give him what he wants.”

The setbacks have taken place at a time when Edwards’ political capital is at its highest. He took office in January, fresh off an upset win in the 2015 race for governor few thought he could win.

However, Edwards is also grappling with huge state budget problems, including a $600 million shortfall starting July 1 that is expected to spark the second special session of the year after the regular session ends June 6.

“The budget is driving everything,” said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators and an Edwards’ ally.

Edwards spelled out his proposed voucher and charter school changes in a joint session to the Legislature on March 14, and they are easily the most notable of his public school bills.

Vouchers are state aid that allows about 7,100 students from low-income families attending troubled public schools to attend private schools. Charter schools are public schools that are supposed to offer innovative classrooms, and about 69,000 students attend them, mostly in New Orleans.

At the strong urging of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, legislators expanded the use of vouchers and took a variety of steps to develop the growth of charter schools, arguing that both allowed parents more choices in educating their children. Teachers unions, which backed Edwards early in the gubernatorial contests, countered that vouchers and charters divert taxpayer dollars from public schools to largely private enterprises.

Edwards wants voucher access limited to students in D and F schools, not the current C, D and F rule, and notes that C schools are not failing.

In addition, he wants to end the ability of charter school applicants to appeal local board rejections if they are in an A or B district.

But Morrish, at the end of a lengthy committee meeting on other topics last month, suddenly announced that he would not be pushing the governor’s legislation to restrict access to vouchers — Senate Bill 361.

Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children, said the bill died amid cries from parents who want options beyond traditional public schools.

“What we are seeing is they are voicing their opinions and legislators are listening and they are taking heed,” said Duplessis, a former state senator from New Orleans.

On Edwards’ charter school priority, Morrish twice scaled back the plan in hopes of winning approval in his own committee.

But even limiting the change to A-rated districts, not A and B, failed to gain traction, one week after the committee voted down a similar bill.

Opponents of the legislation noted similar bills, including some pushed by then-state Rep. Edwards, have failed in previous sessions.

“And in a state like Louisiana that is not doing that well in education, I think they want to keep all the options open,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, which backs many of the school policies Edwards wants to overhaul.

Meaux said opponents of the governor’s public schools agenda are “almost circling the wagons” to protect what they view as hard-won reforms, mostly in 2012.

On the bill to let A and B-rated districts have the final say on charter school applications, she said select districts deserve that right “without charter schools coming in and sucking away the needed resources.”

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said the governor has a long history “of not always embracing the concept of choice, including charter schools and the scholarship program,” a reference to vouchers.

“I feel like we have come to the table with really strong testimony and advocated about why it is important to give parents more options for their kids, so we are pleased,” Roemer said.

The House Education Committee has also rejected a series of bills to curb charter schools, including some backed by Edwards.

One of those Edwards-backed plans — House Bill 879 — would ban future charter schools from being run by for-profit operators.

The sponsor dropped it amid opposition.

The same committee also rejected another proposal backed by the governor — House Bill 98 — that would remove the option for state-approved local groups to authorize charter schools.

However, the Senate has passed a similar plan — Senate Bill 260 — and it is awaiting action in the same committee.

Whether the outcome will be any different next time is unclear.

“I think there is a lot of support from our constituents for both charter schools and vouchers,” House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry said. “Those are the least likely bills of the governor’s package to get any traction.”

Said Wesley, “We continue to dialogue with the House Education Committee.”

She said that bill and two others — the impact of key test results and a modest change in teacher evaluations — are the governor’s lone public school priorities for the session.

Cross said Edwards is trying to undo school changes long embraced by GOP lawmakers who control both chambers.

“And one of the closely held ideals of the Republican Party is increasing parental choice,” he said. “That is the issue here.”

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.

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