Eddie Rispone (left) and John Bel Edwards (right)

Eddie Rispone (left) and John Bel Edwards (right)

Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican challenger Eddie Rispone are at odds on key public school issues, including what the next teacher pay raise should look like.

They also differ on charter schools and other school choice issues, whether public schools need changes in the state constitution and state Superintendent of Education John White.

Edwards, who faces Rispone in the Nov. 16 runoff, is generally aligned with traditional education groups, including Louisiana's two teachers unions.

Rispone is closer to advocates of major changes in public schools. "You can't keep doing it the same way we have been doing it for 50 years and being 48th in the country," he said in an interview.

In one of the clearest splits, Rispone said he favors targeted teacher pay raises rather than across-the-board increases, like the $1,000 boost that Edwards pushed through the Legislature earlier this year.

Rispone said he took his stance after conferring with unnamed local school superintendents.

"I am hearing this $1,000 across-the-board raise is not what they wanted," Rispone said. "They wanted to be able to reward the best teachers more, they want to reward teachers who know how to teach in those low-income schools." 

Giving all of the state's 47,000 public school teachers the same raise makes little sense, he said.

"When you try to standardize everyone, all you are going to get is mediocrity," Rispone said.

Edwards said he still favors across-the-board raises, in part because he said the state lacks a reliable way to rate teachers. "Quite frankly the evaluation system that we have for teachers is fundamentally flawed," he said.

Edwards also said that, in talks with White and others going back to June 2018, not a single superintendent questioned the wisdom of enacting across-the-board increases.

Earlier this year, some lawmakers and others proposed extra pay for hard-to-fill jobs, like math, science and special education. That effort never gained political traction.

Neither candidate said how much teacher salaries should be raised.

Teachers are paid an average of about $51,000 per year, which is at least $1,200 below the 16-state average calculated by the Southern Regional Education Board.

Leaders of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators, the state's two teacher unions who have endorsed Edwards, said reaching the regional average should be the priority rather than targeting certain teachers.

"Let's get all the teachers to the SREB and then let's talk about a pay structure," said Shane Riddle, LAE legislative and political director.

Larry Carter, president of the LFT, made the same point. "Right now I can't see that," Carter said of Rispone's targeted pay raise proposal.

Rispone and Edwards also disagree on charter schools, which are public schools run by non-governmental boards.

The governor has made several unsuccessful efforts in the Legislature to curb the growth of charter schools, including those run by for-profit groups.

In an interview, he repeated his view that it makes no sense for the state to approve charters in high-performing districts after the local school board rejects them. "I have always believed myself to be a supporter of charter schools, but not without limits," he said.

Rispone said Louisiana's top school board has rightly closed some charter schools that failed to deliver on academic and other promises.

"We have not done that on public schools," he said of traditional classrooms. "We don't shut down a school that is a 'D' or 'F.'"

Caroline Roemer, president of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said her group does not consider Edwards an ally.

"The governor does not support choice," Roemer said. "And some of his biggest supporters, the unions, don't support choice either."

Asked how he would improve public schools Rispone said, "Well, it is one reason why we have to have a constitutional convention ... I think there are some structural things that have to be done."

However, the Baton Rouge businessman declined to spell out what those changes would mean for public schools.

Edwards opposes calls for a constitutional convention, which would require the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of voters statewide.

Critics say opening public schools up for a constitutional debate could upend current rules, which all but guarantee state aid for public schools will remain stable even amid cuts for colleges and universities and health care.

The governor said one of his priorities is boosting state aid for public schools by 2.75%, which used to be standard until state budget problems essentially froze state school aid for a decade.

He noted that half the increase would be used for teacher pay, and he has said he hopes to reach the regional average in the next two or three years.

Schools won a $39 million increase last year, or 1.375%.

Edwards said other priorities are boosting aid for early childhood education – it rose $20 million earlier this year – and expanding access for high school students to dual enrollment, which allows them to earn college credit.

Rispone said he wants to explore year-round public schools, especially in rural areas. "Those children don't have food to eat 2 1/2 months out of the year and when they come back to school it takes them two months to get them back to speed," he said.

Rispone also said he can envision teachers of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — leading multiple classes through distance learning.

"That teacher you could afford to pay $150,000 a year," he said.

Rispone said boosting early childhood education is a must and the West Feliciana Parish school system, something of a trailblazer in the area, is a good example.

The candidates have different views of White, who has held the post since 2012 and is generally aligned with advocates of public school changes.

Edwards and White have had a fragile working relationship since the governor campaigned in 2015 on a vow to replace the superintendent.

However, Edwards only names three of 11 members on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and BESE has never launched a bid to replace White, which requires eight votes.

Rispone noted that White has withstood high-profile battles with Edwards and former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"I am surprised he survived this long," Rispone said. "I think he has done a very good job of raising the standards and still addressing the opposition."   

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.