The race for the House District 68 seat has become all about education, perhaps not a surprising turn given that incumbent Steve Carter has spent four years at the helm of the House Education Committee.
Carter says his tenure demonstrates his leadership in this area, championing necessary reforms, as well as improvements to public education.
But his two opponents, both political newcomers, say Carter has failed Louisiana students and parents during his two terms representing the south Baton Rouge district.
Robert Cade Cipriano, a 28-year-old Republican who cut his teeth consulting for a variety of political campaigns across the world, said Carter’s attempts at school reform have been half-hearted, and under his leadership, the state has failed to move the needle in terms of tangible improvements to schools. Meanwhile, Patty Merrick, 62, the lone Democrat with a background in teaching both at the K-12 and college levels, says Carter has backed reform proposals that took education in the wrong direction and hurt teachers.
Carter, a former LSU tennis coach and U.S. Air Force veteran, is seeking his third and final term. The 71-year-old Republican pushed implementation of the controversial Common Core standards, which have since become toxic with some other prominent Republicans. Carter, who still supports Common Core, was key to the “compromise” bills passed this year that subjected the benchmarks to reviews and public hearings.
In 2012, he worked with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to sponsor a variety of public school overhauls, which limited teacher tenure protections, tied teacher compensation to student performance, expanded charter schools and expanded a program allowing public dollars to be used for private school tuition vouchers.
“They were controversial, to say the least, but they were reform minded,” he said.
Carter also touts a bill from last year he co-sponsored that prohibited school boards from denying readmission to a student who previously dropped out, got pregnant or has a child, or is married. This new law, he said, helps keep kids in school and improves graduation rates.
Carter says his passion for students came from his more than 21 years as a tennis coach working with local youths. He is known to visit local public schools and says a priority for a new term would be finding more money for early childhood education and providing publicly funded pre-K for all students as early as 3 years old.
“When you start out, everyone should be on a level playing field,” he said, noting that students coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds have drastically different starting points when they get to kindergarten.
Cipriano is supportive of some of the school overhaul ideas Carter has been involved with, particularly those related to teacher tenure and vouchers. But he says Carter has turned his back on conservatives in recent years.
Cipriano points out that during Carter’s tenure as a state education leader, Louisiana continued to rank poorly in reading and math schools for K-12 students compared to national peers.
“Our per capita spending is middle of the pack, but our educational outcomes are among the worst,” Cipriano said.
Carter, for his part, notes that Louisiana’s ACT scores and graduation rates are at an all-time high.
Cipriano also notes that the drastic cuts to higher education that continued over the course of the past eight years happened while Carter was in office, and Carter voted in favor of budgets that included those cuts.
Legislators failed to adequately address the fact that state funds are excessively dedicated to pet causes, which led to higher education needing to take too steep of a cut, Cipriano said. Incumbents should have worked harder to preserve state money for colleges, he added.
He also vowed to reject another cut to higher education if elected to office. Carter said the Legislature had to respond to difficult economic times. Under a new governor who might be more open to cutting tax credit programs or exemptions, Carter said there will likely be opportunities to cut the budget in areas not related to higher education.
Cipriano, who has worked on political campaigns from New Orleans to Nigeria, also rejects any proposed limits or caps to the TOPS scholarship program. Instead, he wants to sponsor a bill that encourages private corporate investment into a TOPS fund, offsetting some of the public’s costs.
Cipriano, like the other candidates, said he considers transportation infrastructure another priority. While he advocates reversing the dedication of funds locking up the state budget, he would like to see a temporary dedication of money for the state’s $12 billion backlog of transportation infrastructure projects.
He said he doesn’t see a gasoline tax increase as necessary and suggested shifting the current gas taxes to the local level for local control of infrastructure projects.
Carter, who chairs and helped create the Capitol Region Legislative Delegation, noted that the group helped initiate the widening of Interstates 10 and 12, among other local projects. He said he wouldn’t categorically reject a gasoline tax increase, as long the funds were guaranteed to support transportation projects and were not at risk of being diverted for other state budget uses.
Cipriano is launching an aggressive campaign in the district trying to characterize Carter as a liberal. He’s raised about $21,000 for his campaign since June — $3,000 being from his own pocketbook. Carter has raised about $36,000 since January.
Merrick, who, as a Democrat, is a long-shot candidate in a largely conservative district, is a retired school teacher. She spent 33 years teaching history and civics courses in East Baton Rouge Parish School System, as well as another seven years as an instructor at Southern University.
Merrick unsuccessfully ran for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board recently but said she was moved to run for the House because she’s been frustrated by many of the measures sponsored and supported by Carter, which she characterized as attacks on teachers.
“He totally went against everything for teachers,” Merrick said.
Merrick said she was against Common Core because teachers had not been properly trained and educated about the new standards. She also said the teacher evaluation and tenure change proposals were unfair and poorly thought out.
She also views traffic issues through the lens of an educator. She said if schools staggered their start and end times, it would put less vehicles on the road at the same time.
Merrick said another priority for her is finding funding for the mentally ill and expanding Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
“All people should be able to have health care,” she said.
Merrick, president of the parish chapter of the Louisiana Federation of retired teachers union, acknowledged that she is the underdog.
“But I like a fight,” she said. “It may be an uphill battle, but at least we have a chance to propose some new things with a new governor.”