The near collapse of the Democratic Party in Louisiana has jumbled this year’s elections, and put a rare spotlight on races that used to be mostly ignored.
Not only are Democrats all but sitting out the election for governor, the state’s once-dominant party also is struggling to find viable contenders for secondary offices, whose duties most taxpayers would have trouble identifying.
Meanwhile, eight contests for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which most taxpayers also would have trouble identifying, have generated unusual attention.
There are at least four reasons the BESE contests carry unusual weight this time.
- First, winners in the BESE races will help determine who is Louisiana’s next state superintendent of education.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, assuming he is re-elected, needs eight of BESE’s 11 votes to get the job for John White, who is superintendent of the Recovery School District.
Four BESE members say they will not support White.
White, 35, arrived in the state a few months ago after serving as deputy chancellor of the New York City school system.
He is sort of a Paul Pastorek without the prickly personality that plagued the former superintendent.
If Jindal fails to end up with eight allies, chances increase that the state will end up with a superintendent more agreeable to arguments that Louisiana needs more focus on traditional public schools, not alternatives.
- Second, the new BESE will decide whether and how to continue state takeovers of failing schools, which has been the trend for the past six years.
Backers argue the takeovers are the only way to remedy schools that are chronic failures.
Critics contend the takeovers are not working, and the state is ill-equipped to oversee individual schools.
- Third, the new BESE will chart the future of charter schools.
Backers argue the schools are vital alternatives to traditional public schools, and offer students and parents a way out of dead-end operations.
Opponents say, in general, the schools have failed to deliver on promises of innovative classrooms that raise student achievement.
New Orleans has more charter schools per capita than any city in the nation.
Louisiana has a major presence of charter schools, especially in south Louisiana.
Yet lots of charter school debates have been decided on 6-5 votes, which means even a change of a vote or two could derail the movement.
- Finally, the outcome of this year’s BESE races will determine state policies on just how much rigor should govern public school operations.
Public schools will start getting traditional grades this fall.
Where the bar was set sparked a huge debate on BESE that easily could be reopened.
BESE recently toughened yearly standards for Louisiana’s 1,300 public schools to avoid state sanctions.
That, too, triggered lots of controversy, and is subject to another look after January.
In the past, BESE races would have gotten buried under the race for governor.
They would have even been afterthoughts behind the contests for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
This time could be different.
At least six of eight races will offer clear choices on how taxpayers want to repair public schools.
All it took was an unusual political year, including the near cancellation of the 2011 race for governor.
Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.