The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is no longer the obscure body it used to be, especially after this year’s election season.
After a remarkable level of attention to races for the state’s education board, three runoffs will help to claim a lot of public attention in the coming weeks.
Two of the races are in the Baton Rouge area. Incumbent BESE member Chas Roemer faces former Ascension Parish School Superintendent Donald Songy. Gov. Bobby Jindal says his top runoff priority is re-electing Roemer, an outspoken advocate of charter schools and other innovations that often are criticized by teacher unions and officials in “traditional” school systems.
Songy, who was endorsed by third-place primary finisher Beth Meyers, is supported by the Coalition for Public Education, a group including superintendents, school board members and teacher unions.
In another area district, social worker Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge, faces Jim Guillory, of Plaucheville, a former local School Board member. They seek to replace the retiring Linda Johnson, of Plaquemine.
A third runoff is in the New Orleans area, where challenger Kira Orange-Jones led incumbent Louella Givens.
In another big BESE race, Holly Boffy, of Lafayette, defeated incumbent Dale Bayard, of Sulphur. Bayard was backed by the union-led coalition.
The win for the coalition on election day: longtime BESE member and former chairwoman Glenny Lee Buquet, of Houma, was upset, despite Jindal’s endorsement, by Lottie Beebe, of Breaux Bridge, an administrator in the St. Martin Parish school system.
What is at stake that is motivating business interests — including tycoon Mike Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City — to invest heavily in the campaigns of Louisiana BESE members? One outcome is the election of a new state superintendent.
A Bloomberg protégé, John White, was hired to run the Recovery School District overseeing schools taken over by the state.
He is Jindal’s pick for state superintendent, but he must be elected with eight votes of the 11-member BESE.
The governor has three appointees on BESE, so a win by Roemer or Orange-Jones might well give White the votes to replace former Superintendent Paul Pastorek.
The coalition opposes White, arguing he doesn’t have the qualifications for the job.
However, the larger question is whether Louisiana will continue to innovate in public education. With a majority of Orleans Parish students in charter schools, national attention has been focused on the RSD and Louisiana’s groundbreaking accountability system. We strongly support most of those reform initiatives and believe BESE has a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the accountability system.
For voters seeking details about the BESE candidates, the Council for a Better Louisiana has invaluable surveys about candidates’ views on the issues. Those are available at http://www.cabl.org.
While much attention is rightly focused on who’s backed by business or who’s backed by unions, the issues before BESE aren’t always a matter of cut-and-dried divisions. And even if the business-backed “reformers” are fans of charters, the reality is that most students learn in traditional public schools run by local school boards.
We are all for innovation, but it must be innovation that improves educational outcomes in every school, whether it’s under a volunteer board such as a charter school or an elected board as part of a parish system.