One of the most important offices most folks have never heard of is on the Oct. 24 ballot, and we suspect people will hear more about the races for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
That’s because BESE, the state school board, is the battleground over the direction of accountability for public schools in Louisiana.
The BESE policies are “critically important to students, parents, taxpayers and Louisiana’s business community,” according to Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. LABI backs the current board majority that has supported the policies of Superintendent John White but has often drawn criticism from some members of the board and sometimes from Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The board has eight elected members from around the state and three members appointed by the governor. In backing White’s appointment and in standing firm for the reformist policies of recent years, BESE has compiled a commendable record of accomplishment.
Test scores are up while dropout rates are down, and Louisiana has continued its leadership role in the Common Core movement to bring higher academic standards to public education.
Not all of the BESE majority’s policies are popular; in Jindal’s case, he was for Common Core before it became a political hot potato in 2014, and he turned against it. But under the leadership of White and board President Chas Roemer, of Baton Rouge, the majority stood behind the Common Core change.
As with all the tough battles for accountability and higher standards before it, change in such a vast arena as public education can be slow. It is the work of years, not the four years of a school board or a BESE board member. The impact of pervasive and intergenerational poverty is a hard legacy for Louisiana’s teachers and principals to overcome.
What we’ve got, though, is a board that has been by and large consistently on the side of accountability and academics, taking tough votes even under pressure from disparate directions, teachers unions or Jindal or local school boards.
Those issues will be retried in the court of public opinion during the fall elections for the eight elected seats. But let’s not forget that a new governor also will be elected this fall, and three appointments is a huge influence on the board’s actions.
There’s a lot of debate about the direction of public education these days, and not all innovations work out. But the policy statement this month from One Acadiana, the Lafayette-based business group, summarized the bottom-line issue: “This progress (in student achievement) has been supported by Louisiana’s public education reforms that are promoting rigorous academic standards, improving pre-kindergarten, increasing parental choice and empowering school and district leaders,” the group said. “Abandoning these reforms will be a major step backwards.”
That it would, and BESE races this fall should be on the radar screen for voters.