If you have been triumphantly elected governor of Louisiana with 56 percent of the vote, you can do almost anything, right? Not exactly.
You have to have the votes.
While many are aware of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ need to find common ground with the Republican-led Legislature, there’s another body where the governor’s word is not law, 56 percent or not.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education sets policy for schools from kindergarten through high school. Eight of its members are elected, and three are appointed by Edwards.
And it is BESE that picks the state superintendent of education, not the governor.
“I have no intention of allowing John White, who isn’t qualified to be a middle school principal, to remain as superintendent,” Edwards said in June.
Now, the governor has had to backtrack on White’s tenure because seven of eight elected BESE members are not eager to fire their still-new superintendent.
Philosophically, they are from different camps of education policy. White is more supportive of charter schools, independent of local school boards; Edwards is an advocate for the school boards and has sought to restrict charters in the state. White has carried out the policies of former Gov. Bobby Jindal on vouchers for private and parochial schools; Edwards is skeptical of vouchers.
The two men clashed often, White on the same side as the Jindal-led majority that ran roughshod over Edwards and teacher unions and traditional school boards in legislative battles during the past few years. The two men would not be human if they didn’t have some hard feelings over the past.
How do they get together?
First of all, most issues before BESE aren’t clearly ideological. They tend to be practical, and the pragmatic approach Edwards promises as governor is probably going to go a long way with BESE members, elected or appointed. By the way, we think Edwards’ three appointments on the board — particularly the highly regarded Doris Voitier of St. Bernard Parish schools — will be responsible and pragmatic voices there.
Further, the charter vs. traditional split is one that could usefully be dialed back in terms of heat.
While we think charters are a valuable addition to the education landscape, increasingly in Baton Rouge and Lafayette as well as New Orleans, it is important not to overstate the importance of battles over governance structures. A strong principal with professional teachers demonstrating performance in the classroom is a good thing, whether in a charter or a traditional system; the vast majority of Louisiana students are in traditional schools, and BESE members of all stripes — not to mention Edwards and White — ought to be willing to work together to support them.
Finally, the political landscape that Edwards so dominated last fall was not really fashioned by debates on educational policy. Nor did White, who clashed bitterly with Jindal over the Common Core academic standards, end up as a mere political holdover from the last administration. Edwards himself voted for a Common Core compromise fashioned in large part by White last year.
All this suggests that if two smart and effective leaders approach this relationship without rancor — or at least without excessive rancor — there should not be a feud between the governor’s office and the state Department of Education.